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Car Accidents - February 2007 On the Line

Jan 11, 2007 SHARE
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Attention Deficit
Don't be part of the problem
In the time it takes to read this sentence, you could have been in an accident. Recent studies into driver behavior have shown that the time between a person becoming distracted to having an accident is about three seconds. And driver distraction turns out to be the cause of 80 percent of all traffic accidents and 65 percent of near-collisions. It shouldn't be any surprise that talking on a cellphone tops the list of things that divert our attention from driving, but reading, eating and reaching for a fallen object also take their fair share.

Think about your four or five most recent close calls. I'd be willing to bet that in most cases the person who pulled out in front of you, ran a stop sign, or abruptly changed lanes had one hand on the steering wheel and one clasping a cellphone to an ear. Driving is a surprisingly difficult and attention-hungry activity, if done well. On those occasions when I have had to make a call, I become much less proficient. I am less likely to see a bad situation and react to it and, like so many other drivers, become fixated on the car in front and its rear bumper-one giant step closer to having an accident. Next time you drive along an interstate and come across a knot of cars all traveling nose-to-tail at the same speed, see how many of the drivers are talking on their cellphones, with their vision locked onto the bumper of the vehicle in front of them.

Accidents are violent and devastating. In less time than it takes to blink, huge forces rip apart robust sheet metal and fragile lives. Volkswagen's recent television commercials give a strong indication of the sudden violence that is an automobile collision. In these commercials, ordinary people are driving down the road, having equally ordinary conversations. Through the windshield, we see another vehicle running a stop sign or committing some other infraction and in an instant the collision occurs, at full force and in real time.

Volkswagen is to be commended for not using 'artistic' slow motion of the collision. Incredibly, these are real crashes, occurring at road speeds and done in one take with stunt drivers at the wheel. Volkswagen has taken considerable heat over the spots, primarily from individuals who think the commercials are too graphic or that by showing the violent consequences of a collision they are in some way negative or scary. Sure, they are disturbing and may be frightening to some. Good. It's about time people woke up to the havoc that two tons of steel can wreak when a driver loses control.

During the past 30 years, an inordinate amount of research and development has gone into designing cars that drive themselves. The results of such research have brought us automated safety systems, such as adaptive cruise control that controls the vehicle speed and even applies the brakes if a collision seems imminent. But the day that every vehicle is equipped with fully automated guidance is a long way off. And until that happens, the driver is responsible for controlling the vehicle. Unfortunately, if that driver is talking on a phone, reading a newspaper or applying make-up, it's likely that not all of his or her attention is properly focused.

I recently had a chat with an off-duty Highway Patrol officer. We talked about traffic around his medium-sized southern city. He reported that traffic and traffic accidents had gotten much worse in just the last five years. And most of the accidents he was seeing could have been avoided. In his view, accidents were largely caused by inattentive or overly aggressive drivers whose grasp of driving fundamentals were sketchy at best and that when he pulled up at the scene of an accident, anyone still able to stand was invariably on the phone.

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How could we have become so uninvolved in our driving in such a short period of time? One reason, ironically, might be that our vehicles have become so good. Modern cars have double draft seals on windows and doors, incredibly robust body structures and thousands of tiny details that help isolate any intrusion of road noise. Quiet yet powerful engines and refined automatic transmissions make it difficult to judge whether we are traveling at 10, 15 or 25 mph over the speed limit. Tire and suspension technology has progressed so that even an average economy car can corner as well a race-bred exotic from just a decade or two ago-in nearly any weather condition. What noise and fuss does get through can be easily drowned out by hundreds of watts of surround-sound music. But this is progress. Only a Luddite would argue that these are not all good things.

Let me be a Luddite for a minute. When cars were noisy and cantankerous, you had to pay attention to them and to your driving, or you ended up stranded or off the road. As late as the mid-'80s, the roar of the wind at 60 mph made you think twice about traveling at 65 or 70. In inclement weather, you slowed down, never sure when you would need to pump the brakes and turn into a skid as the vehicle lost its tenuous grip.

These cars, and the ones that came before, were unsafe by modern standards. But they were involving. They demanded some level of skill and attention. You were a part of the process-not isolated from it.

Is there an answer? Probably not in the short term. Drivers will continue to use cellphones and eat sandwiches as their three-ton SUVs hurtle through space, covering 100 feet every second. They will exercise their DMV-licensed right to fixate their eyes on the bumper of the vehicle in front of them as they hurry to appointments and meetings and will be outraged if you suddenly happen to be lawfully in their path.

They aren't making driving much fun, but all I ask is that you not be one of them.

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