Tuesday, April 25, 2006

If 8 of 10 Accidents Involve Distracted Drivers, Not Speeding Drivers ....Why Keep the Speed Traps?

Auto bloggers and everybody else who drives should give careful thought to the implications of that joint traffic safety research project between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virignia Tech Transportation Institute announced last week.

Why? Consider the lead sentence of NHTSA's official release on the study:
"Driver inattention is the leading factor in most crashes and near-crashes."

Wait a minute, what about speed? Haven't we been told for decades that speed is the biggest cause of traffic accidents? Law enforcement and elected officials, insurance industry executives and traffic safety ideologues like Joan Claybrook have been drilling into the public consciousness for decades that "speed kills."

So now we find out it's distracted drivers, not speeding drivers, who are the leading factor in traffic accidents? Can it really be that somebody in government is actually looking at the real world on the road and seeing through the conventional wisdom about speed?

Apparently so.

"This important research illustrates the potentially dire consequences that can occur while driving distracted or drowsy. It's crucial that drivers always be alert when on the road," said Jacqueline Glassman, acting administrator of NHTSA.

NHTSA said the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study tracked the behavior of the drivers of 100 vehicles equipped with video and sensor devices for more than one year. During that time, the vehicles were driven nearly 2,000,000 miles, yielding 42,300 hours of data. The 241 drivers of the vehicles were involved in 82 crashes, 761 near crashes, and 8,295 critical incidents.

"The huge database developed through this breakthrough study is enormously valuable in helping us to understand - and prevent - motor vehicle crashes," said Dr. Tom Dingus, director of VTTI.

Among the key findings of the NHTSA/VTTI study were these:

* Drowsiness is a significant problem that increases a driver’s risk of a crash or near-crash by at least a factor of four. But drowsy driving may be significantly under-reported in police crash investigations.

* The most common distraction for drivers is the use of cell phones. However, the number of crashes and near-crashes attributable to dialing is nearly identical to the number associated with talking or listening. Dialing is more dangerous but occurs less often than talking or listening.

* Reaching for a moving object increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by 9 times; looking at an external object by 3.7 times; reading by 3 times; applying makeup by 3 times; dialing a hand-held device (typically a cell phone) by almost 3 times; and talking or listening on a hand-held device by 1.3 times.

* Drivers who engage frequently in distracting activities are more likely to be involved in an inattention-related crash or near-crash. However, drivers are often unable to predict when it is safe to look away from the road to multi-task because the situation can change abruptly leaving the driver no time to react even when looking away from the forward roadway for only a brief time.

This is big news, folks! Now it's time for a thorough and fearless re-examination of the basic priorities that govern traffic safety and law enforcement, the kind of driving behaviors rewarded and penalized by the insurance industry and, perhaps most important, the way automakers design interiors and driving controls.

Go here for the NHTSA/VTTI study details.

And go here for an editorial in The Washington Examiner that opens the discussion about the needed changes called for by the study in law enforcement, insurance and auto design.