Friday, September 25, 2009

Distracted Driving - Time to Start Addressing the Problem

The hot topic on the minds of transportation officials all across the country over the past few weeks has been the problem of distracted driving. With more and more states beginning to examine the possibility of proposing texting/emailing bans or complete cell phone bans, driver distraction has been pushed to the front of the transportation safety agenda.

The increased attention being given to distraction is reflected in the upcoming Distracted Driving Summit being hosted in Washington, DC by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The summit, to be held on Sept 30th-Oct 1st, will bring together senior transportation officials, elected officials, safety advocates and law enforcement to discuss the problem of driver distraction and how it can be addressed. The AAA Foundation will be involved with these proceedings as Senior Manager of Development Kristin Backstrom will share the foundation’s knowledge on the issue, including findings from this year’s AAA Foundation Traffic Safety Culture Index survey which found 80 percent of drivers agree that distracted driving is a serious threat to their safety, but 67% of drivers also admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving in the past month.

This “Do as I say, Not as I do” attitude is one of things we must change to push toward a positive culture of safety. As part of this effort, we are calling for all drivers to become a distraction-free driver during Heads Up Driving Week beginning October 5th. During that week, we would like to remind drivers of the risks from all types of distracting behaviors and encourage them to drive distraction free. We all need to examine our own driving habits and stop engaging in distracting behaviors behind the wheel. Help spread the message about the dangers of distracted driving and keep your Heads Up from October 5th-11th.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dangers of Distracted Driving

The dangers of distracted driving, especially those associated with emailing and texting while driving, have become hot issues after the recent release of new reports, including initial findings from our second annual Traffic Safety Culture Index survey. And, while I applaud efforts, such as the recently announced US DOT forum on distracted driving, let us not forget the bigger issue of changing the culture in this country. Specifically, our recent findings were that 90% of drivers believed drinking and driving was a serious threat to their safety, while 87% felt the same way about texting or emailing while driving. And, I believe, although we have not completely solved the drunk driving problem, we have made substantial progress, and we have changed the culture with respect to drinking and driving. It is no longer socially acceptable to “have one for the road,” and society has effectively stigmatized drinking and driving. In contrast, while 87% of our survey respondents believed texting and emailing while driving were serious threats, over 40% of drivers younger than 35 admitted to texting while driving during the last month (and about one if five of all drivers of all ages). And, unfortunately, our current culture seems to accept if not encourage these attitudes and behaviors. One death on our highways is unacceptable; one death every thirteen minutes is an outrage!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The True Risk Senior Drivers Pose

A series of recent traffic-related incidents in Massachusetts involving senior drivers have thrust the issues of senior licensing and the danger senior drivers pose on the road into the national spotlight. While these incidents were certainly tragic, the truth is that while seniors may appear to be a threat on the road they are actually less of a threat than you or I. In fact a recent AAA Foundation study that was published in the Journal of Safety Research analyzed government data on fatal crashes from 1999-2003 to estimate the risk that drivers of various ages would be involved in and be partially responsible for a fatal crash. The study revealed teenagers are the most at risk group to be involved in a fatal crash and that seniors, while they do pose some threat, are actually much more of risk to themselves then other drivers or pedestrians. Nevertheless, the study has confirmed that the risk of being involved in a fatal crash increases around age 65, and over 3,000 drivers in that age category are killed each year.

Ideally, getting a drivers’ license should be based on whether an individual has cognitive and physical functional abilities necessary to drive a car. There is no denying some of these abilities are affected with age, but this doesn’t mean senior drivers can’t maintain these abilities at the level necessary to drive. And, given the demographics associated with the baby boom, our society is getting older, and thus, now more than effort we need to emphasize the programs to extend the safe driving experience for older drivers. Fortunately, I am excited to announce that a new computer program (interactive game) called DriveSharp™ is now available that can do just that. The Drive Sharp program uses computer exercises to help seniors improve things such as divided attention, reaction time or “useful field of view” – factors that are directly correlated with being a safe driver. And, from my perspective, the most exciting aspect is that Drive Sharp has been shown to reduce the risk of at-fault crashes by up to 50%. For those seniors who want or need to improve their functional abilities needed to drive this is an outstanding tool. A free screening test and information on the program, including a free is available at

Friday, July 10, 2009

AAA Foundation co-hosts traffic safety culture summit…

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and Western Transportation Institute co-hosted the first National Rural Summit on Traffic Safety Culture on June 22 in Big Sky, Montana. Attendees represented a cross section of individuals and organizations in the transportation community.

The goal was to generate dialogue about traffic safety culture, its meaning and the influence it has on public attitudes and behaviors. I was extremely pleased with the issues we were able to address. It is imperative that we consider the cultural factors that define our values and govern our behavior to improve transportation safety. This discussion of traffic safety culture’s role in society among industry professionals is a step in the right direction.

Monday, May 11, 2009

“Cars, not germs, are the bigger threat"

In the May 9, 2009 issue of the Washington Post newspaper I was immediately drawn to the following letter to the editor from Jared B. Goldberg from Arlington, Virginia. His letter read:

We are in the midst of an epidemic, although it is not the one that is gathering countless hours of news coverage. It does not involve influenza or any other transmissible disease. Rather, it is the epidemic of motor vehicle crashes.

As an emergency physician, I see many people coming to the emergency room with concerns about "swine flu." However, that number pales in comparison to the number of people that I treat who have been injured in vehicle crashes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 1,639 confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza in this country, with two reported deaths. In 2007, 41,059 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes and almost 2.5 million were injured. This is an average of 110 fatalities and 6,800 injuries daily. Virginia has already reported 219 motor vehicle deaths this year.

With all the emphasis on containing the spread of the flu [news story, May 6], it is odd that people are apathetic about containing the toll of vehicle crashes. Last year the Virginia General Assembly bowed to constituent pressure and repealed heavy fines designed to discourage dangerous driving [Metro, March 28, 2008].

Perhaps if we start referring to "accidents" as "swine collisions," motor vehicle crashes will finally gain the attention they deserve.

Well stated Dr. Goldberg. Thanks for adding your voice to our efforts to change the culture of complacency towards car crashes and to bring about a more positive traffic safety culture in this country.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Taking Steps To Improve Our Culture

In the Transportation Research Board's latest issue of TR News (January-February 2009) I was pleased to see the article, “Safety Research on Highway Infrastructure and Operations: Improving Priorities, Coordination and Quality.” It summarizes the findings of TRB Special Report 292. This report calls for the establishment of a new Scientific Advisory Committee and development of a national research agenda, among other things. Both of these steps are entirely consistent with the AAA Foundation’s call for enhanced communication, coordination and collaboration that will be necessary to realize a more positive traffic safety culture in this country. Accordingly, I hope these recommendations do not “die on the vine.”

Traffic-Related Deaths Decline

Obviously, I am delighted with yesterday's news that preliminary NHTSA data indicates that traffic fatalities for 2008 have gone down 9%. Unfortunately, our crash and exposure data bases are not sufficient for anyone to ascertain why this has happened. It is certainly logical to "assume" that some of it was due to reductions in driving linked to the economy, especially when you consider that some of the riskiest drivers, such as teens, might be the first to be affected by high gas prices. However, it also makes sense that tougher laws such as primary seat belt requirements and Graduated Driving Licensing, both of which have been proven to work, played a role. It's also logical to assume that the concerted efforts to make cars and roads safer over the past decade contributed as well. Nonetheless, I must ask, "Why haven't we invested enough in our data systems so that we could resolve this issue more easily?" I'm not sure of the answer but we must recognize the ambiguity in this area and understand how multiple factors can contribute to these statistics. And, finally, let us all not forget, even with nearly 3,750 fewer deaths this year, we still have a long way to go because 37,313 people still died and that is unacceptable.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Road Safety and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

The AAA Foundation’s vision of an enhanced traffic safety culture in this country is a social climate where everyone highly regards traffic safety and rigorously pursues it. Unfortunately, all too frequently, we have seen just the opposite – actions reinforcing the current culture of complacency.

Well, I am extremely pleased to highlight one recent bright spot related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Namely, under the leadership of Joe Toole, Federal Highway Administration’s new Associate Administrator for Safety, FHWA has done a number of things to assure that highway safety receives high priority in the implementation of the ARRA. For example, on its national website they have identified opportunities to use ARRA funds for highway safety projects, as well as tools that can be used to support and justify those safety decisions. Recognizing that nearly half of all fatalities occur on rural roads, FHWA has put particular emphasis on educating local governments about the details of ARRA and how to work with their State DOT’s to advance projects. Nearly 1000 people participated in two national webconferences that were offered at no charge to local governments. The sessions put a strong focus on safety improvements and the potential impact of ARRA on safety. These same thoughts are being presented to conferences across the U.S.

Personally, I can’t think of any more deserving “shovel-ready” project than a safety improvement project that will not only make jobs but will save lives! Hopefully, the state and local road authorities will take FHWA’s advice!

Friday, February 13, 2009

100 Deaths a Day

If I told you there is an epidemic taking more than 100 lives a day would you be afraid, inquisitive, alarmed, outraged? Just over 100 people on average die each day in the United States as a result of car crashes. This epidemic is taking the lives of mothers, fathers, children, brothers, and sisters.

The recent coverage of air travel from the NTSB hearing on medical helicopter safety, to the miraculous landing of the airliner in the Hudson River, to today’s unfortunate and tragic airliner crash into a home in Buffalo, NY all highlight the obstacles ahead of us striving to reduce traffic related deaths and injuries.

Are car crashes deemed unavoidable or simply seen as the price we must pay for mobility? There is no doubt both of these plane crashes deserved a great deal of attention, but where is the public outcry and attention for those who die in car crashes?

I would argue if 100 people died each day as a result of national air travel in the U.S. there would be a public outcry to make air travel safer. The question remains as to how we harness individual outrage over traffic related deaths and injuries into a public outcry that can’t be ignored.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Traffic safety culture lags way behind air safety culture

There have been several significant media-reported accounts about the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing on medical helicopter safety. In light of revealed information indicating that in 2008, 29 people died in emergency helicopter crashes an NTSB Board Member said, “The recent accident record is alarming and it is unacceptable.” In contrast to the number of deaths each day from highway crashes and the manner in which the media and public view them, the difference is most striking. This overwhelmingly underscores our challenge and the different prevailing culture between air safety and traffic safety.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

America's Infrastructure Rated "D"

The American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card today, giving the nation’s infrastructure an overall rating of D. The grading includes infrastructure such as roads, bridges and waterways, and was last issued in 2005, where it earned a marginally better grade of D+.

This year, roads themselves got a D- . The report stated that “one-third of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 45 percent of major urban highways are congested.” This rating stems from the high operating and repair cost to motorists in order to maintain the current condition of many of our nation’s roadways, as well as the cost associated with traffic congestion and crashes.

This seems to be just the latest in reports showing that both the state of our roads and the public attitudes towards traffic safety are in need of increased funding and attention. What more will it take to erase the “culture of complacency” our nation has when it comes to safety on our roads? As the new administration in Washington continues its steps to revive the economy, we can only hope that they keep in mind how important the state of our nation’s infrastructure is to the overall safety and well-being of its people.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Change" in Washington

These days there is a lot of buzz in Washington about “change” and about the economic stimulus package designed to revive the economy. Within the highway community there is more than the usual debate going on relative to “meaningful projects, shovel ready projects, legacy efforts and earmarks, among other hot topics.”

Unfortunately, there is much less talk about my favorite topic – highway safety! In fact, I have heard almost no public discussion of it. This further underscores for me the current “culture of complacency” whereby motorists, legislatures, and the public at large seem willing to accept 40,000 highway deaths each year as the cost we need to pay to enjoy our mobility. And, it further reaffirms the need for the Foundation’s initiatives that we hope will eventually lead to a new, more positive, traffic safety culture.

Most traffic safety professionals believe that as much as 50% of the highway carnage could be eliminated if we had the political courage to enact proven highway safety measures. And, that ultimately achieving those successes will require a system’s approach that strives for safer drivers in safer vehicles on safer roads. The current economic stimulus package represents a golden opportunity to substantially realize “safer roads.” Through years of research, development and evaluations we have “shovel ready” road safety improvements that could quickly be implemented across the country. And, this work would not only create construction jobs but, more importantly, it would save lives.

For example, AASHTO recently published “Driving Down Lane-Departure Crashes: A National Priority,” that most convincingly documents that relatively simple engineering improvements, such as pavement edge rumble strips, centerline rumble strips, and cable median barriers, have all been proven to be very effective in preventing serious crashes associated with lane departures, a category of crashes that account for 25,000 deaths each year. For example, since Missouri installed cable median barriers, they have seen a 96 percent reduction in deaths caused by vehicles crossing the median into opposing traffic on two interstate highways. These and similar highway safety improvement efforts should be a vital component of any economic stimulus program!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Safety Culture in a Perfect World

The next logical step toward an enhanced traffic safety culture is to build support for implementing known regulatory and legislative solutions. Although there are dozens of known solutions that can, and should be implemented, here are a few of my favorites.

Take for example graduated driver licensing (GDL): 16 and 17-year-old drivers are five times more likely to die on the road than adults, per mile driven. To combat these odds, every state in the U.S. has adopted some form of GDL; however, not all systems include the components believed to be the most effective. The comprehensive GDL programs that yield the greatest safety benefits include several provisions, such as a minimum age of 16 to obtain a learner’s permit; 30 hours of supervised driving practice; a restriction on driving unsupervised after 10 p.m.; and a restriction of no more than one passenger, among others.

Specifically, a 2007 AAA Foundation report found that the programs with five of the seven recommended provisions were shown to reduce deaths and injuries by nearly 40 percent. But, sadly today, only 8 states and Washington, D.C. currently have even 5 of the 7 recommended components.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC), one innovative technology solution, is not yet well known to most car buyers or motorists, but it should be. Using high-tech sensors, linked with anti-lock braking systems, ESC can sense when a car is about to go out of control and selectively apply the brakes to prevent loss of control and skidding. Past research in the U.S. and abroad has found that ESC can decrease deaths in single-vehicle crashes by as much as 56 percent. The federal government has recognized the benefits of this technology, but they will not be fully mandated in new vehicles until model year 2012. Why can’t we accelerate the implementation of this known solution? Why don’t consumers demand this feature in new cars?

Similarly, edge rumble strips, centerline rumble strips, and cable median barriers are quite effective in preventing vehicles from leaving respective travel lanes, actions that account for 25,000 deaths each year. For example, the state of Missouri has taken a systematic approach that addresses shoulder width, rumble strips, guardrails, and upgraded signage, and has seen a 25 percent reduction in fatalities resulting from lane-departure crashes over the past three years, and has reported a whopping 96 percent reduction in deaths caused by vehicles crossing the median into opposing traffic on two interstate highways where they have installed cable median barriers. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions have been slow to implement similar efforts.

Seatbelts save lives if worn and it is extremely encouraging that according to daytime observational surveys, over 80 percent of motorists are buckling up. Nonetheless, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), reports that 55 percent of passenger vehicle occupants killed in crashes in 2006 were not wearing them. And once again, there are known solutions we could implement. For example, primary seatbelt enforcement laws — laws that give police the right to stop and ticket someone for not buckling up — have reduced fatalities by nearly 10 percent in states with such laws compared to those that do not. And, enhanced seatbelt reminder systems — systems that beep, buzz, or otherwise annoy a driver into putting on their seatbelt — could play a vital role in getting more folks to buckle up. Some studies report a five to six percentage point increase in buckling up with just the use of belt reminders. That’s a lot of lives saved. In fact, NHTSA estimates that over 5,000 people who died in 2006 could have been saved if everyone had been wearing seatbelts.

Perhaps the most common, and illusive, dilemma faced on the road is speeding. We have essentially allowed ignoring the speed limit to become normative behavior. In the Foundation’s Traffic Safety Culture Index, 45 percent of drivers admitted to exceeding the speed limit by 15 mph on the highway in the month before the survey, including a handful that admitted doing so very often, and again, these were only the ones who were willing to admit it.

NHTSA cites speeding as a contributing factor in over 30 percent of crash deaths, equating to more than 13,500 deaths in 2006 alone. However, most traffic safety professionals believe these statistics substantially underestimate the true size of the problem. One large and prominent systematic review of published research on speed and speeding concluded that even just a one-percent reduction in traffic speeds on a road would reduce crashes by two percent overall and reduce serious and fatal crashes by three percent. This may not sound impressive, but again, this is for only a one-percent speed reduction — one percent — and the result would be an even greater decrease in road casualties than would be expected to result from an equivalent decrease in traffic volume, according to the study.

There are lots of known ways to discourage speeding, but so far their implementation in the U.S. has been limited. For example, studies show that speed cameras are proven to reduce injury crashes by 20 to 25 percent from fixed, conspicuous locations. Yet only six states and Washington, D.C. currently have laws specifically authorizing speed cameras.

Moreover, new intersection designs, such as roundabouts, have yielded substantial, positive results in the prevention of crashes. A well-controlled study of the effect of converting several traditional intersections into roundabouts in eight states found that the roundabouts reduced fatal crashes and crashes resulting in serious injuries by 90 percent – 90 percent. Fortunately, more and more municipalities have seen the success stories from Europe where roundabouts are more common, and are starting to construct them around the country. But, there are still many jurisdictions that have not been converted.

Some solutions are even more obvious, like helmet laws. The facts are staggering. Motorcycle fatalities have more than doubled since 1996, and over 40 percent of those killed do not wear helmets. NHTSA predicts that 750 motorcyclists who died in 2006 could have been saved if they had simply covered their head. In addition, various studies report that once the laws are enacted, motorcyclists obey, typically at a rate of 83 to 90 percent. Enacting helmet laws in states without them has resulted in increases of use from 50 to 90 percent. The proof is there.

Alcohol is arguably the deadliest element that can be coupled with driving. According to NHTSA, in 2006, 13,470 fatalities occurred in crashes involving a driver with a BAC of .08 or higher, and almost 16,000 occurred with the driver’s BAC of .01 or higher. The Traffic Safety Culture Index found that nearly 10 percent of people polled admitted to driving when they believed they were legally drunk, in the past month. Furthermore, eight percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes had prior DWI convictions. Thus, people are knowingly repeating destructive behavior.

Alcohol ignition interlocks — devices preventing a vehicle from starting if its driver blows a BAC over the legal limit — are proven to be effective. So effective, in fact, that research has shown that roughly 1,100 lives could be saved if all drivers with any prior DWI conviction in past three years were prevented from driving with any alcohol in their system; and nearly 800 lives could be saved if only drivers with priors could be prevented from driving with BACs over the legal limit of .08. And, the Foundation’s Traffic Safety Culture Index found that four of every five Americans supported or strongly supported requiring all DWI offenders to use interlocks before they could start their vehicles. So why don’t we require them?

Furthermore, studies on physicians screening for alcohol abuse have shown general reductions in both drinking and alcohol-related crashes and injuries. In fact, over time, alcohol intervention groups have proven to decrease hospitalized injuries by nearly 50 percent. It is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of the 2 million patients entering trauma centers in the U.S. have alcohol problems, yet screenings are not mandatory. Patients entering an emergency room or trauma center have their blood pressure checked — why not an alcohol screening as well?

And those are just a handful of the many known countermeasures that are proven to work.

One death is too many, and allowing over 40,000 a year, or one every thirteen minutes is an outrage. The roadway death toll equates to 9/11 occurring monthly for over a year, yet no change is seen. And, despite the fact that the numerous solutions exist, many remain unimplemented. How many more crosses and flowers will be raised before a change is finally made?