"Forgiving" Distracted Driving Won't Keep Our Streets Safe

On Monday, the U.S. DOT released a report concluding that the number of deaths caused by distracted drivers dropped 6 percent in 2009 — from 5,838 the previous year to 5,474. The report was a prelude to the agency’s second national summit on distracted driving, where the message from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was very clear: Distracted driving is preventable and enforcement works. LaHood pointed to a pilot enforcement program in Syracuse that has cut texting and cell phone use behind the wheel by about 40 percent.

Over at the National Journal’s transportation experts blog, Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, wasn’t convinced that enforcement and driver responsibility are the answer. Writing that “we should admit that we all get distracted sometimes” and “enforced legislation and education can only go so far,” Cohen argued that engineering cars and roads to be more “forgiving” of driver inattention and carelessness is the way to go.

Should cars and streets be designed to send the message that these activities are okay? Photo: ##http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/dailyweekly/2010/01/the_five_most_dangerous_produc.php##Seattle Weekly##

Cohen’s post prompted this response from Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists:

I’m not interested in trying to walk or ride along the street as part of some giant fairground bumper car game where drivers feel like they can crash with relative impunity. I want drivers (and cyclists) to pay attention, drive carefully, and NOT crash. The focus for me has to be on improving driver behavior, attention and responsibility.

We have come a long way in improving the safety of vehicle occupants. Indeed, you could be forgiven for wondering why we aren’t doing dramatically better already after the introduction of seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes, crumple zones, roll-over protection and the like. After 50 years of highway design that has widened, and straightened roads; removed all manner of roadside obstacles (like killer trees); installed collapsible poles and safer guardrailing; limited access and crossings; rumbled, signed and marked roads with ever-increasing levels of visibility and reflectivity. After quite incredible improvements in medical treatment and EMS services in the event of crashes. Really, where have all the benefits to all these great developments disappeared? Why have we still been killing 40,000-plus people a year for decade after decade?

One possible answer could be that we are a nation of generally lousy, distracted, careless drivers who really don’t take the responsibility of driving seriously and are not held to account for that behavior individually or collectively. That needs to change, and focusing on distracted driving is a welcome opportunity to do just that.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Following the recent death of Green Party Senate Candidate Natasha Pettigrew in a hit-and-run collision with a motorist, Baltimore Spokes reports that Maryland has some of the country’s most lenient vehicular manslaughter laws in the country. A Commute Orlando blogger analyzes the road conditions on a local thoroughfare after witnessing a motorist hit a cyclist. And the Seattle Transit Blog reports that tax revenue declines as a result of the recession will delay Seattle’s 15-year voter-approved transportation plan.

  • Fake Marcia Kramer

    Ernie and I are investigating this report. A single mother of seven young children contacted Ernie’s help line. She needs her driving time to email and text her child’s school and babysitter, and to update her Facebook page. She wants to know if there will be a tax credit for drivers inconvenienced by unfair new rules like this.

  • MRN

    I don’t see why “both” isn’t an option here. People should not be texting, drinking, or whatever while they are driving. But when it does happen, it’d be nice of there was vehicle technology that lowered the chance I might die or be severely injured when I get hit.

  • “Both” does not mesh with human psychology, as we have seen with the “forgiving highways” engineered over the last half of a century. Enter traffic calming.

  • Omri

    If the edge of the highway was lined with obstacles that didn’t kill you but guaranteed fenderbending heartache, nobody would text and drive.

  • HuckieCA

    I think that Andy Clarke needs to maybe do some research before spouting off. First, there is truth some truth to the position that Greg Cohen has taken. If you read into the actual VTTI research that has suggested that 80-90% of critical incidents involves some distraction, you will find that not all of that distraction is related to driver stupidity. Those numbers include “distraction related to the task of driving,” such as glancing to your mirrors, searching for roadsigns, or having your attention captured by one threat to the exclusion of another. Even if we somehow banned all internal distractions (cell phones, etc.) and all external distractions (billboards, hot blonds walking down the street, etc.), there would still be a significant percentage of distraction-related incidents in driving. It is only in the most simplistic view of reality that one could be so delusional as to think that we always know exactly where we are going, never travel anywhere novel, and that any human can be 100% of both attentive and error free 100% of the time.

    Second, the concept of “forgiving vehicles and roads” is one that should be embraced by vulnerable road users. In the field, making vehicles forgiving includes technologies to aid drivers in detecting hazards (including bicycles in some of the advanced system concepts), redesigns to the front end to reduce pedestrian injuries, external airbags, etc. Forgiving roads includes such concepts as the Bike Friendly Intersection Design that was depicted in this column on Sept 20th and other traffic calming measures which are touted here quite a bit. There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be focused on both preventing crashes and mitigating the severity of crashes when they do occur.

    As a final note, as has been mentioned over and over again, the US has roughly 40k deaths a year related to automobiles and the latest statistics have shown that roughly, at least 5600 of those are related to distraction. However, those same reports also show that 11k of the deaths are still related to DUI/DWI and 11k are related to speeding. So four times the number of deaths on the highways are related to alcohol, drugs, and speeding. Where’s our outrage about those issues?

  • Distracted drivers who are “forgiven” by road engineering or whatever else will continue to drive distracted. And given that TWD makes you about 23 times more likely to crash, chance are good that that forgiveness will lead them to eventually hurt someone.

  • HuckieCA

    @ddartley: does knowing that your car has airbags or side impact airbags make you more likely to run red lights? I mean, that is the logic that you are trying to use. TWD is illegal in CA and it should be illegal everywhere, and I don’t think that there is anyone credible who is taking an opposing position.

    I think the confusion over the field of error tolerant roads is that the field has evolved over the years. Yes, in the last century, forgiving roads meant clearing the road of all obstructions, which resulted in the unintended consequence of higher speeds. But over the last decade or so, that philosophy has been changing, and now it’s recognized that there are ways to make roads more forgiving without inducing a false sense of security.

  • Look, we’ve all played Mario Kart. Replacing the guard rails with rivers of hot lava would do the trick.

    But more seriously, until my flesh and bones catch up with technologies such as air bags and breakaway sign posts, I think the burden of responsibility should remain with the driver.

  • la rider

    I can’t believe some of the stuff I was reading on that site. Protect the bad driver? Maybe the government wants people to die?

    Less social security
    Continued vehicle purchases
    Ever increasing insurance premiums, both health and auto

    Creative ways of population control?

  • Al

    People always criticize the nation’s obesity rate, but perhaps obesity should be encouraged as a way for pedestrians to have a crumple zone of their own.

  • Ric Bruce

    Perhaps it would be useful to address the true underlying cause of driver inattention. That is, driving a car is tedious manual labour.

    Paradoxically, nobody knows that better than the automobile manufacturers themselves. Their massive advertising budgets (approximately US$17 billion per year for the last five years or so) invariably feature single cars “flying” down roads uncluttered with other cars, red lights, or pedestrians or bicyclists. In other words, the companies’ extensive research into the issue has clearly proven that the realities of automobile ownership and operation are, at best, unsaleable.

    In an effort to distract attention from the underlying tedium that is driving, automobile manufacturers have added an ever-increasing number of toys that enable the driver to amuse themselves.

    So, rather than attempt to “make roads safer” or “make drivers pay attention”, perhaps we’d do better to recognize that driving isn’t “fun” or “freedom” or “excitement”, and begin liberating Americans from the tyranny of the automobile-centric way of life.

  • poncho

    Wow, Andy Clarke’s response is outstanding.

    You just need to hold motorists accountable for their actions and if the punishment is so severe people will police themselves out of fear (one would hope the fear of killing or injuring someone would be enough but apparently not). Now you can kill or injure someone and its an ‘accident’ with no consequences whatsoever for the motorist (I could pull up 20 examples of this from just this week alone, and at least five in my area within a few minutes of looking). If youre a pedestrian and get hit by a car you better hope the driver was drinking so they’ll receive punishment. Drunk driving is about the only place where drivers are somewhat held accountable, the other is hit-run in the few instances that they are found. I could honestly careless whether the driver was distracted or not, all that matters is whether harm was done to someone else (likewise I could careless whether the driver kills themselves).

    Of course so much of this is the design and rules of the road, designed exclusively for motorists so that it makes it so the motorist is always right/innocent and the pedestrian or cyclist was at fault and shouldnt have been there. I find it troubling the concern, design and money given to protecting motorists from their own self-inflicted reckless driving errors (the use of sand barrels, crumple-on-impact guardrails, generous shoulders, removal of trees, railings/barriers by any slight elevation drop, forgiving roads in general, etc) while little to no concern for the safety of innocent pedestrians or cyclists caught in the crossfire of reckless drivers. This is absolutely appalling to me.

    I hate to go this way but I’m really starting to think traffic engineers and DOTs are going to have to be held legally accountable and liable for the road designs that injure or kill pedestrians by knowingly neglecting the safety of vulnerable road users and lack of accommodations of other road users. (If I understand correctly they already are liable in a few instances when it comes to motorist deaths/injuries or car damage but obviously pedestrians arent that important).

  • Steve F

    A year ago the president of Ford Motors said Ford’s goal was to give the driver the experience of sitting in his living room. Really.

    So we have a guy laid back on the couch, beer in one hand, remote in the other, cell phone in the 3rd hand, multitasking by watching TV and texting. Very comfortable.

    But who the hell is driving the car?

    Through the 1970’s, car dashboards had a steering wheel, a shift lever, a light switch, about 3 radio knobs and 3 heat/cool/fan knobs and that was it. A driver could operate all of them by feel alone.
    Today we have more knobs and buttons than the space shuttle, some controls require watching a video screen. It takes a flight engineer to manage these dashboard controls and still leave the driver with attention for the road.

    At 30 miles an hour, a car travels 44 feet per second – that’s two car lengths in less time than it took to read this sentence. How many seconds do drivers have their eyes and minds off the road and the task of driving?

    Living rooms are supposed to be comfortable,
    but they don’t travel well.
    Who the hell is driving the car?

    You want to use the phone or text, take the bus.

  • My discussion of distracted driving on the Alaska Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance site, http://akpedbikealliance.wordpress.com/.

    I’m a regular bike commuter, and I’ve had a couple of scary moments trying to cross a narrow bridge that involves a climb (so I’m leaning back-and-forth a bit as I climb) on the only route to my workplace. We barely have about three or four feet of bike gutter (there are channels down the side to drain water in our rain forest climate), and it can be intimidating to “feel” cars and trucks passing by you so close you can lean into them. I’m glad I have decent peripheral vision, because there have been a couple of times when I noticed cars or trucks with drivers using cellphones drifting into our small bike gutter. Equally disconcerting is seeing cyclists chatting on their cellphones while they pedal to their destination. You can’t multi-task, folks. If you must make a call, pull over (not in the bike lane) and take your call safely.

  • HuckieCA should know that the League of American Bicyclists has done their research: http://www.bikeleague.org/resources/reports/pdfs/distracted_driving_league_report.pdf.

    I find it astonishing that anyone who has actually read the VTTI 100 car naturalistic study (http://www.nhtsa.gov/DOT/NHTSA/NRD/Multimedia/PDFs/Crash%20Avoidance/Driver%20Distraction/810594.pdf) could come to any conclusion other than that drivers need to pay more attention to the road. Staff from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who sponsored the study, sat on a panel with League staff last week at the Pro-walk/Pro-Bike conference and made a strong case in favor drivers putting down their cellphones while driving.

    As people who care about road safety, our first priority needs to be to create a culture of attentiveness among drivers.

  • R. Thibault

    The illusion that multitasking can even be accomplished suggests that there must be a cultural shift in the American way of thinking. If one is doing two things at once, one’s focus is not 100% on one task. No amount of “forgiving” design or technology is going to change that.

  • I never understood why people think that “multitasking” means you are actually working on two things at once. “Multitasking” means you are managing your time to have multiple tasks open at once.

    I had a boss who once asked why I wasn’t working on a budget and another document at the exact same time. She actually thought that was physically possible.

  • #5 said: “So four times the number of deaths on the highways are related to alcohol, drugs, and speeding. Where’s our outrage about those issues?”

    Drunk driving and speeding are illegal and socially stigmatized, as they should be. The point of distracted driving legislation is to accomplish the same thing. The risk of crashing while texting is like that of driving drunk, yet it is still legal to text while driving in 20 US states. That’s crazy. And we still have a long, long way to go one cell phone legislation.

  • Buddy Cheek

    Consider this

    Road to the Future

    Imagine getting into your electric car, which you had unplugged from your home electric circuit, then driving to a major highway system that worked like a distribution warehouse. That is one that picks up a product in one spot and delivered it to the desired location via sky rails. Can you imagine your auto being built in a fashion that it could connect to the system without it or the system slowing?

    Imagine that while you are delivered leisurely to a point near your final destination, you are being entertained; your auto is being cooled or heated, the batteries are being topped off and the cost of the trip is being charged to your debit or credit card.

    Imagine a system that will nearly eliminate accidents on your long distance travels.

    Imagine the system mostly being built over the existing right of ways of the interstate and other systems with very little environmental impact. The Carbon impact of cars would be reduced tremendously.

    Imagine putting Trillions of dollars on systems for the future rather than those that are antiquated or on a high speed train using yesterday’s technology. People will not use it because you lack transportation at both ends. Do we need to catch up with Japan or show them a better way? How about “A Giant Leap for Mankind” in which everyone participates?

    Imagine the millions of people that would be employed as we design, build and deploy a system that would make our country the envy of the world. By building the worlds most modern transportation system the economy would boom. With the systems for moving people and goods in place, the economy should continue to flourish. The standard of living should rise. We can export these materials and this knowledge to the rest of the world, further fueling the economy.

    Imagine the earnings growth of our major corporations and the participation of hundreds of small businesses as they provide the plans, tooling and products required to assemble the system.

    Imagine people from all walks of life in the U. S. being brought together with the pride of creating the world of future.

    I believe that we as a nation can do this. What do you think? Let me know your thoughts.

    Buddy Cheek

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