Making Tough Choices

As a traffic safety professional, I usually try not to “talk shop” at social events. 

On one hand, I easily get preachy about how people should gear up their driving skills: I don’t want to go to more funerals for people I care about because they were killed in a crash.  While I’ve always had a passion for helping drivers be safer, I’ve also seen the consequences of traffic tragedy:

  • I have worked for a man who lost his child in a crash
  • I’ve had colleagues who’ve lost sons and daughters in crashes
  • My own mother died, on the day after Christmas in 2008, when a pickup truck crushed her sedan in half at an intersection.  I also feel bad for the driver of that pickup because he’ll have to live with the images of driving her car off the road, into a drainage ditch beyond the intersection.

On the other hand, most people only know what they hear about on the TV news or read in the papers.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the media covered ALL aspects of traffic safety evenly or comprehensively, but they don’t.  Media outlets are paid to make a profit through high ratings which sell advertising space.  The very best way to “make the news” is to start with the truth and then sensationalize how it’s delivered.  I’m not suggesting that newsmakers misinform, but I believe that they do put a spin on how they tell their stories to make them engaging and enthralling.  This leads to the public becoming hyper-focused about a tiny slice of what’s really going on in the world of traffic safety.  Again, the media reported stories are accurate, but don’t show the “whole picture” – they’re often out of context. 

Take a look at this link — http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Common/Chart.aspx  What’s the most common issue in traffic fatalities?  “Failure to keep in proper lane” resulted in 7,696 funeral services in one year.  That’s terrible, and yet, you’ll not hear about that in the news.

How about this link – http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811090.PDF  In this document, it states:

“Speeding is one of the most prevalent factors contributing to traffic crashes. It reduces a driver’s ability to steer safely around curves or objects in the roadway, extends the distance necessary to stop a vehicle, and increases the distance a vehicle travels while a driver reacts to a dangerous situation. Higher crash speeds also reduce the ability of vehicle, restraint system, and roadway hardware such as guardrails, barriers, and impact attenuators to protect vehicle occupants.”

How many lives would be saved if everyone obeyed the nationwide ban on speeding (i.e. “speed limits” posted in your hometown and on the interstate)?  Similarly, how about if speed limits were enforced as strictly as the IRS audits tax returns?  Do you think road deaths would go down measurably?

On the topic of speeding, have you heard much about the use of “Speed Limiters” (SLs) on heavy trucks?  A study was released in March of this year (http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/facts-research/research-technology/report/Speed-Limiters.pdf); the stated purpose was:

“…to identify the impacts of implementing speed limiters (SL) in commercial vehicle fleet operations. These impacts may be related to safety through a reduction in the number and/or severity of crashes, and/or address operational issues…”

The study included data from “20 truck fleets, approximately 138,000 trucks, and analyzed more than 15,000 crashes.”

The findings showed strong positive benefits for SLs:

“First, in terms of safety benefits, results indicated that trucks equipped with SLs had a significantly lower SL-relevant crash rate (approximately 50 percent) compared to trucks without SLs. Second, the cost of the technology is negligible and would not be expected to be cost-prohibitive for fleets/owners.”

Amazingly, using equipment that’s been largely “standard issue” (i.e. included in all newly manufactured heavy trucks and consequently no added cost) many commercial fleets could substantially reduce their crash rate (by 50% if the study’s methodology is accurate).  However, many safety managers lament that their fleet will not use the devices.  Many express that it’s critical to their productivity that drivers must be able to speed to “make up lost time” in urban areas where they sit in congestion and lose eligible work hours.

There are, arguably, hundreds of additional traffic safety issues that deserve our attention (i.e. roundabouts, automated enforcement, advanced telematics to monitor more safety issues than speed alone, congestion management, 511 service utilization, etc.); however, it all comes down to tough choices.

These are tough choices about what to prioritize.  What’s most important?  What are the top ten issues that we should focus on addressing first?

If you ask the media, there is apparently only one answer – cell phones and texting.  Improper cell phone use while driving is certainly an important cause, but it’s far from the only cause of death and injury. 

During 2011, SafetyFirst processed tens of thousands of motorist observation reports for our 3800+ active clients.  3.81% of all reports mentioned improper cell phone use.  At first glance, that may look like a low number, but what’s more significant is that it represents a 20% INCREASE in complaints for cells/texting over CY2010.  Despite the increase in complaints about improper use of electronics, it remains a relatively minor contributor to the total number of road deaths when split out from the much broader category of “distracted driving”.  

Does that make the need to curb the use of cells for texting unimportant?  NOT AT ALL.  However, I think it calls for some perspective adjusting to properly fit together the mosaic of various driver safety issues.

For example, a colleague recently challenged me on the cell/texting statistics arguing that I was callous about the relatively low number of cell/texting deaths and stated that “if we could save even one life we had an obligation to put all our resources into it”.  I asked if she’d be willing to have a speed limiter installed on her personal car to save a life since speeding contributed to four times the number of deaths than cells/texting alone.  She declined the suggestion preferring to be able to pass slower drivers (who are, I suppose, actually driving the posted maximum speed limit).  [Author’s note:  I appreciate her honesty. Many people would have gone for some contrived response to duck the real issue – we take risks and have gotten used to it]

Despite the emotional spin offered by the media about the urgency of these issues, most people won’t actually commit to improve road safety unless it is to advocate what other drivers need to do to change.  If it means that they have to commit to making a tough choice to change their own driving, they’re less likely to do so1,2.

How will we make a lasting change in issues like cell phones and texting?  I believe that looking at the history of seatbelt usage programs may provide guidance on how we can tackle the cell phone dilemma.

It took a lot of people deciding to wear their seatbelts consistently to make a change over the course of the past thirty years.  In 1983 seatbelt use in the USA was at 14% and it has grown to 85% as of 20103.  The steady change in personal commitment to use seatbelts took:  massive educational programs, special traffic enforcement programs (STEPs), and the cooperation of car manufacturers, local communities and various enforcement agencies.  It didn’t change overnight, and it didn’t happen solely because we banned driving unbelted — it took a commitment from more than one generation of drivers to make a difference.

Similarly, it will take a concerted effort people making tough choices to:  slow down; use turn signals correctly; yield the right of way courteously; hang up the phone; and drive in a focused, self-disciplined manner to further reduce collisions and their associated costs.

Summary

Whether you characterize yourself as a Parent, Teen Driver, Senior Citizen, Professional Driver or a daily Commuter, we each have to make tough choices if we’re going to actually improve road safety results.  We can’t sit back and expect things to change because it’s someone else’s job to drive better than they did yesterday.

Additionally, as safety professionals, my peers will need to continue to guide their constituents based on constructive prioritization – making them aware of all the road risks, not just the sensationalized ones.  So when you see articles about roundabouts, red light cameras, Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, and such, we’re not ignoring or trivializing cell phones and texting.  We are trying to do our best to deal with many critical issues that lead to real pain and suffering.

Because many people can be manipulated by fear and anger, there’s a great responsibility to raise the bar and really make a difference in the greater community.  This larger community is depending on our leadership to execute a complex, but effective, strategy of reducing road deaths – not “regardless of cause” but because we’ve carefully studied “all of the causes” and made tough choices to prioritize appropriately to save as many lives as possible.

1 – AAAFTS Traffic Safety Culture Index, January 2012 – “…the current traffic safety culture that might be characterized most appropriately as a “do as I say, not as I do”… For example, substantial numbers of drivers say that it is completely unacceptable to drive 10 mph over the speed limit on residential streets yet admit having done that in the past month. (http://www.aaafoundation.org/pdf/2011TSCIndex.pdf)

2 – Press Release by AAAFTS, March 8th, 2012 – “Speeding remains a significant safety threat on U.S. roadways—contributing to nearly one-third of all traffic deaths each year – and while motorists frequently list aggressive driving as a top safety concern, many still admit to driving well over posted speed limits.” (http://newsroom.aaa.com/tag/traffic-safety-culture-index/)

3 – http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811493.pdf

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