Monday, December 22, 2008

Major Public Misconception Poses a Danger on our Nation’s Roads

In early December the AAA Foundation released the results of an in-house study on cell phones and driving. An astounding two-thirds of Americans who use cell phones while driving believe it is safer to talk on a hands-free cell phone than on a hand-held device, despite scientific research showing that is simply not the case. In fact, evidence shows that using a hands-free phone while driving impairs your reaction time to critical events and increases your crash risk about the same as if you were using a hand-held phone.

Too many Americans are driving with the false sense of security that hands-free devices are somehow safer. This misconception is posing a risk to all road users, because using a cell phone while driving makes you four times as likely to be involved in a crash. Too many drivers are chatting away on their hands-free device or their Bluetooth with no knowledge of the danger and they’re putting us all at risk.

Drivers need to be aware of the dangers of distracted driving and pay full attention while they are behind the wheel. Young drivers, especially, face an array of potentially deadly challenges behind the wheel. Parents should ensure cell phone use while driving, whether hands-free or not, isn’t added to the list of distractions at this critical time for new drivers.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Building a Traffic Safety Culture - Part 2 - The Culture of Safety

In 2006, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety made safety culture one of four long-term research and education focus areas. The goal was to get behind the statistics and figure out why people behaved the way they do on the road, what fuels those actions, and most importantly, what could be done to change the situation.

Despite the effort of a dedicated traffic safety community, what we generally saw was that motorists, elected officials, and society as a whole had become extremely complacent toward the staggering roadway death toll. While the numbers of deaths should have caused red flags to be waved demanding action, instead it appears we have been waving the white flag of surrender, tacitly accepting these preventable deaths as the cost of the mobility we enjoy.

In light of this, the Foundation published its first-annual, Traffic Safety Culture Index in 2008, a nationwide survey analyzing the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of motorists and non-motorists alike across the country.
I referenced some of the findings in an earlier post.

The results were both alarming and telling. Motorists condone the very actions that they abhor, demonstrating a “do as I say, not as I do” culture.

For instance, over 80 percent of respondents rated distracted driving as a serious problem, yet over half admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving in the past month. Three in four drivers rated speeding as a serious problem, but 40 percent of those same drivers admitted to driving at least 15 mph over the speed limit on highways. And if that wasn’t enough, three in four respondents claimed to be “more careful than others” behind the wheel.

However, at the same time, over 60 percent of the respondents rated road safety as a serious national problem — admittedly below gas prices, but ahead of global warming. This is an encouraging number for the traffic safety community, and one that hints of added support for tackling this epidemic.

Organizations such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Transportation Research Board, in conjunction with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, have published comprehensive guidance and reference materials documenting dozens of known countermeasures. Most traffic safety professionals believe that deaths and serious injuries could be reduced by as much as 50 percent if known solutions were implemented.

In the Foundation’s Index, only 33 percent of respondents believed the government could substantially improve traffic safety. And, although it is difficult to identify exactly why people felt that way, it is safe to assume that part of the reason is due to years of “over promising and under producing” by government agencies. They have promised congestion relief, but none has occurred, and they have promised enhanced traffic safety, but we’ve seen little substantive change in deaths and serious injuries over the last decade.

However, with new emphasis on enhanced communications, collaborations, and a reinvigorated culture, the vision of safer drivers, in safer vehicles, on safety roads could become a reality.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Building a Traffic Safety Culture - Part 1

A silent cross and shuddering bundle of flowers speak volumes — especially on a roadside.

America is all too familiar with the imagery. Last year, 41,059 times too familiar, to be precise. Roadway deaths are the number one killer of individuals age 2 to 34 and have claimed over one million lives in the past 25 years. However, the most disturbing statistic is that the number of yearly deaths has essentially remained the same since the early 1990s.

And, the saddest fact is that the great majority of these deaths are preventable. These are not just accidents waiting to happen. As motorists, we can greatly reduce the likelihood of being in a fatal crash by simply adopting some common-sense behaviors. Buckle up each and every time you are in a vehicle; turn the keys over to someone else if you have been drinking; keep your eyes on the road and mind on the driving task. So, put down the cell phone, PDA or sandwich; obey the speed limit and be courteous.

Furthermore, there are many other things that car manufacturers, road authorities, and elected officials could do to reduce the risks to the motoring public. In fact, there is a long list of known solutions that have been validated in the real world and shown to reduce traffic crashes or their impact. Once implemented, this combination of revitalized traffic safety laws and vehicle and roadway improvements could make the zero-death vision being adopted by more and more transportation organizations a reality. So, why don’t we?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Safe Travels to You!

Over the past 25 years we've seen a substantial drop in fatal car crashes due to alcohol, that corresponded with a cultural shift in the way society has viewed drinking and driving.  Unfortunately, over the past decade progress has stalled.  We are cautiously optimistic that the reported drop in driving deaths in 2007 related to alcohol will be sustained, and ultimately be part of broader efforts to improve the traffic safety culture in this country.

On the eve of a long holiday weekend, it is certainly timely to remind all motorists of risks associated with drinking and driving.  So, if you do drink, turn the keys over to someone else who has NOT been drinking.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Traffic Deaths Down - Mission NOT Accomplished

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 41,059 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2007, the lowest number of traffic deaths per year in over 10 years. That is certainly good news! Some of the drop is undoubtedly due to efforts of the traffic safety community, while some may be associated with the economy. The exact explanations will require additional analyses of the data. But, regardless of why the death rate has dropped, we must not lose sight of the big picture, and forget that 41,000 deaths - one every 13 minutes - is a major public health crisis.

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans from ages one to 34, and they affect countless friends and family members whenever they occur. Yet, motorists, citizens, key stakeholders and our society in general, are complacent to these ongoing tragedies. Most of us have accepted these preventable deaths as the cost of enjoying the mobility we clearly enjoy.

One death should be unacceptable; one every thirteen minutes is outrageous!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Merging Like the Ants (Safely)

I spoke with Cynthia Gorney of the New York Times a few days ago, and we had a great conversation about how and why we behave as we do on the roads - a definite sync with traffic safety culture. Her story, accessible here:, is an entertaining look at the thinking and behavior deployed by two schools of drivers where there's a merge required. She has designated these two groups the "lineuppers" and "sidezoomers," and it should be pretty apparent what these two groups do when a merge is required. Traffic engineers joined the conversation and explained, not surprisingly, that if everyone gets along and does what's best for the common good, traffic will flow more smoothly and merge more safely. By the way, did you know that Julius Caesar had traffic laws to manage chariot jams? Or that ants don't get into traffic jams?

We've all been in the situation where road construction closes a lane and we need to merge down from four or three lanes to three or two. Some of us take what we might believe is the higher moral ground, and stay patiently in line; others are the sidezoomers who drive right up to the end of the lane, and merge in at the 'head of the line.' At the Foundation, we're always interested in how behavior impacts safety, and how we can change behaviors to increase safety for all road users. Most of the public doesn't appreciate the traffic engineers' strategy for moving us through a merge, where everyone gives up a little for the common good. So, when a lineupper is waiting, and a sidezoomer is moving ahead, instead we see disgruntlement developing. Sometimes, this turns into full blown rage that results in hand gestures, horn blowing, or worse.

Take a minute to read Ms. Gorney's story. If everyone had a better appreciation for how to improve traffic flow, and took a few deep breaths, it could be a step forward in making roads safer for all road users.

And, for more information about what we're doing to change traffic safety culture, please visit

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Unlicensed Drivers - Everyone is at Risk

Since at least 1993, one out of every five fatal crashes has involved at least one driver who was not properly licensed.

Previous research has found that unlicensed drivers and drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked are significantly more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than are validly-licensed drivers. A 2000 study by the AAA Foundation reported that 13.8 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes between the years of 1993 and 1997 had no driver’s license, an invalid license, or was of unknown license status. Furthermore, the study found that fully one in five fatal crashes occurring between years 1993 and 1997 involved at least one such unlicensed or improperly licensed driver.

In 2003, we updated the research and found that as of 1999, these statistics remained virtually unchanged. Very recently, we have updated these statistics again, using the most recent data available. Here's what we found:

  • Over 8,000 drivers involved in fatal crashes annually—nearly one of every seven drivers involved in fatal crashes—have an invalid license, no license, or unknown license status (possibly invalid or unlicensed).
  • Almost 12 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes have had their license suspended or revoked at least once in the preceding three years, including over 1,700 who have had their licenses suspended or revoked three or more times, and about 100 whose licenses have been suspended or revoked ten or more times.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Do as I say, or do as I do?

American motorists blame other motorists for unsafe driving, despite the fact many admit to doing the same dangerous practices themselves, according to a new report out today by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. For example, Americans rated drinking drivers as the most serious traffic safety issue, yet in the previous month alone, almost 10 percent of motorists admitted to driving when they thought their blood alcohol content was above the legal limit.

Where's the outrage? Every 13 minutes, someone dies on America's roads - yet the nation seems complacent about these preventable tragedies. The 2008 Traffic Safety Culture Index makes clear that while motorists are quick to blame the ‘other guy' for deadly practices like drunk, aggressive or distracted driving, too often those pointing the finger are themselves, part of the problem. When almost 10 percent of motorists admit to recently driving after drinking too much alcohol, the problem is much worse than people think. We need a big red flag to focus all stakeholders on real solutions for highway safety. Instead, we seem to be waving the white flag of surrender by largely accepting the carnage of forty thousand deaths on the road each year.