What Should I Do About Distracted Driving?

DistractedWhen we think of distracted driving, most of us immediately consider cell phone use. While this might be the most common example used in distracted driving campaigns, it is certainly not the only one. Any action that takes the drivers attention off of the driving task is distracting and is to be avoided. This month the provincial distracted driving campaign is telling us that the second leading cause of collision fatalities in B.C. is not being properly focused on operating your vehicle.

Near the beginning of one of my day shifts I observed a car traveling toward me at 76 km/h in a posted 50 zone. As it came closer, I could see the driver had both arms up  moving her hands around her head. After stopping her and asking for her driving documents I could smell a strong odour of hair spray inside the car. She was doing her hair on her way to work! Not only was she distracted by the task, she was not holding onto the steering wheel.

As a collision analyst I was called to investigate a fatal two vehicle collision. One vehicle involved was parked at the side of the road with the left side tires about one meter to the right of the white shoulder line on a straight uphill stretch of four lane highway. My conclusion from what I found in the car is that the driver had stopped to eat lunch and enjoy the scenery. A van traveling in the slow lane drifted to the right while the driver helped the passenger change the CD in the stereo. The resulting half overlap crash killed the driver of the car and injured the occupants of the van.

When I was a teenager, we had one friend in our group who was such a bad driver that the rest of us stopped riding with him. He was more interested in participating with the conversation in the car than he was in driving the vehicle. What scared us the most was his inability to stay in his own lane while he failed to follow the speed limits. Sadly, it was a single vehicle collision later in life that killed him.

The message that distracted driving is a problem on our highways is almost ubiquitous today. The real problem now are the people who ignore that message. I watched a young man pull up beside me at a red traffic light recently. He was texting on his smartphone and holding it at the top of the steering wheel with both hands. When he noticed the marked police vehicle waiting to turn left from the cross street he merely lowered his hands to the bottom of the steering wheel and continued to compose his text.

You may have heard that B.C.'s distracted driving ticket penalties are among the lowest in Canada. You may also have heard this week that the provincial government intends to remedy that sometime in the future. Responsibility for this is not all in the hands of government, ICBC and the police. You can set an example yourself by being a focused driver, refusing to ride with someone who isn't and actively discouraging the practice by reporting distracted drivers to the police. Let's do our best to reduce the average of 81 distracted driving deaths per year in B.C. to zero.

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Distracted driving.

I have two perfect examples from the last two days.

Yesterday on the way to work a small truck in the near side lane, travelling well over the speed limit, decided to switch lanes behind my vehicle and go over to the outside lane (3 lanes total, I am in the middle one). Cranked it over fairly hard, zooms on over and just avoids side swiping a van that is in the outside lane by swerving hard back into the middle lane and then having to brake hard to avoid hitting the back of my car.

Van passes me, as does this driver, and as he passes I see why he is driving so badly - he is eating his breakfast out of a bowl with a spoon!

Today's was a Smart car in front of me, and the driver kept turning to the passenger, facing them completely and was obviously engaged in conversation - not paying attention to what was in front of them at all. I eventually caught up to her (it turns out) at the traffic lights where I passed on the right as I was turning right. The passenger? A child.

Just wondering if, of the 81

Just wondering if, of the 81 deaths due to distracted driving, how many that casued the accident were stopped a red light at the time. My guess would be zero.

The examples you gave were excellent cases of true distracted driving, save one... the guy texting at a red light. The fact is that there are other things in the car that require a measure of attention - other people, the radio/music, GPS, heat/ac, reading huge billboard advertisments as we cross bridges and so on. If we can't do these things while stopped at a light then when? I an loathe to hear about cops hiding in bushes to catch 'distracted drivers' at a red lights. It reeks of cash grab and I don't belive that it will necessarily curb the practice of doing these things while you are actually driving.

Oh, but they hold us up when the lights turn green, people say. Perhaps but then we give them a light tap of the horn... the same thing we have been doing for decades when someone gets caught after the light change looking in the glove box or changing the station or screaming at the kids in the backseat. Hey, if we really want to reduce distracted driving... let's ban kids from cars!


What can you do about Distracted Driving?

Two good ideas.

  1. Get the One Tap App downloaded and installed in your cell phone.  It's free, and it works; cleverly, it removes temptation as you don't know when people are calling or texting you until you check the phone after you've stopped driving.
  2. Obtain some MK176 Vehicle Decals from ICBC and put them on your vehicle, and any company vehicles you may drive.  

Yeah, the decals are cute,

Yeah, the decals are cute, but for someone phone addicted I suspect they and the big highway signs on the same subject both just trigger the urge to check the phone. It's a behavioural addiction.

Distracted driving

Do something genuinely useful: lobby your politicians (provincial and federal) for immediate changes to standard equipment requirements for new vehicles. The technology exists, and has existed for years, to prevent distraction from resulting in: rear end collisions, overspeed, dangerous lane changes, wandering out of lane, backing collisions, pedestrian strikes, and numerous forward collision types and severities. There is no good or accpetable reason to continue allowing the practice of "bundling" these features with luxury items such as infotainment systems and leather, nor is there any acceptable reason to delay implementation of regulations requiring these proven technologies to be installed as standard.

Furthermore, these technologies should, as much as technically feasible, be made increasingly available in the aftermarket for retrofit of the existing fleet. We can't all just dig a hole and bury our current car, we need to make those safer too. 

Why? The answer is in the interminable nagging about distracted driving. The problem is that distraction is inevitable, as is other human error, during the driving task. Nobody, absolutely nobody, drives perfectly, without attention to "secondary attentional tasks", or small and large mistakes, all the time. This is not because people are, in the main, careless, malicious, or foolish. Certainly examples can always be found of these concerns, and they should be addressed, but the fact is that the vast majority of drivers are just trying to get back and forth as part of their day, whatever else it entails.

What we know, and we do indeed know this, is that even though driver error and driver condition account for the generally accepted 80 or 90% of collisions, this does not mean that the best way to reduce collisions is to focus primarily on reducing driver error or oherwise improving drivers. We've been doing that for years, with little effect. Still needs to be done, but not as our main set of efforts. 

Instead, we should make our primary focus the improvement of the driving condition - safer vehicles, safer roadways, safer speeds. It has been improvements in safety equipment, infrastructure, (think roundabouts), and regulation that have posted the majority of improvements in traffic outcomes over the past fifty years, not the evolution of a new human being. So: less pointless nagging, more re-direction of public and private resources into making roadways and vehicles safer, so that the inevitable human errors will not result in tragedy. If we're going to point fingers, then let's point them at what works, rather than at each other.

Want to know more? Look up Vision Zero, the international campaign to reduce traffic fatalities/injuries. Also NHTSA, IIHS, and CARSP for research on what works, and why. The site "Mycardoeswhat" offers good information about what's currently available, because consumers seem to be in the dark about the safety technologies in their current vehicles, let alone what else is out there. Neil Arsason's "No Accident" probably gives us the best Canadian overview of the field.

I cannot agree with your assertions.

The technology exists, and has existed for years, to prevent distraction from resulting in: rear end collisions, overspeed, dangerous lane changes, wandering out of lane, backing collisions, pedestrian strikes, and numerous forward collision types and severities.

In fact, the technology is in its infancy.  Car and Driver magazine conducted a real world test on several top manufacturer's luxury cars in a recent issue, and none of them are ready for prime time!  Most couldn't even keep themselves within their lane on the freeway when confronted with ... a merging on-ramp.

And mandating that these inadequate, prototypical systems be immediately installed in all vehicles would destroy an industry, which depends on being able to sell reasonably priced cars as well as luxury models.

Besides which, it's the relatively low task load on the modern driver even in a regular car that makes it seem to them that they have the ability to ignore driving as their priority when the phone rings or they need to send a text, or eat their breakfast, or whatever.  Dumbing down the task load even further can only lead to less attention from the driver, more of an illusion that they're impervious to error and insulated from responsibility.

Remember when antilock braking systems came along?  These were touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread, as they would provide drivers with the ability to simultaneously stand hard on the brake in an emergency whilst still being able to steer around an obstacle, such as a pedestrian or vehicle ahead.  Didn't work though, did it?  The number of rear-end collisions remained the same - or even increased, due to overconfidence (there were even suggestions that ABS could reduce braking distances, which defies physics).  And meanwhile, some hot shot police officers were wrecking their cruisers by over-driving their cars to the point of brake fade due to over-reliance on the system to keep them on the road.

Of course, the greatest vehicles on the road these days in terms of autonomy are those Google cars.  And just last week, one of them pulled out from the curb and drove into the side of a bus.  When they asked the driver why he hadn't taken control, he responded that 'he thought the bus would stop'.  Uh huh.


Excellent review of the state of the autonomous car's development, although Car and Driver hardly represents the sort of independent scientific authority the world of traffic safety should be looking to. However, not at all what my statement about crash and injury prevention technologies being extant and proven referred to, which will be apparent by reading of the references cited.

The ubiquitous issues with driver distraction are well known, perhaps best described on a scientific basis by the Naturalistic Driving Studies over the past decade or so. That they go well beyond the contemporary fixation on cell phone use has been obvious to anyone giving the matter serious thought. Which is exactly why we must move beyond simply yelling at drivers to "pay attention", and get on with equipping drivers and other road users with the infrastructure and technologies that will prevent inevitable distractions and other errors from resulting in needless death and injury. And these elements do exist, have been tested in real world application by responsible independent and peer-reviewed scientific research (as previously noted). The dramatic reduction in collision rates, and the consequent reduction of death and injury rates, generated by Electronic Stability Control, for instance, is incontrovertible, was known for many years, and finally resulted in the regulations requiring that it be mandatory standard equipment for model year 2012. It will, however, be 2042 before ESC populates the majority of the North American vehicle fleet (see IIHS on the point).

That's the problem. Given the extremely long lag time between the implementation of a safety regulation and its broad application, it is imperative that we move much more quickly to adopt and standardize safety technologies and engineering as soon as they are proven, rather than wait, as we have done, for the "pressure of the market" to bring them to the majority of the road users.

On the subject of the autonomous vehicle: the development stage we're at, in terms of actual production vehicles, is the semi-autonomous vehicle, capable of operating on "autopilot" if you will, for some portions of some trips reliably. This stage has been variously tested in Europe for some time, and they are now establishing "real world" testing/operational sites on motorways and in communities, where vehicles from various manufacturers (Ford, Volvo, Renault, BMW et al) can be operated in the normal course of daily driving in different levels of semi-autonomous control. The expectation that reduced collison/injury/fatality rates will be reduced by this level of driver aid is grounded in the assessment of those rates as they have already been reduced by preceeding collision prevention systems, such as emergency brake assist and autobrake.

The suggestion that increased safety technologies and infrastructures will break the bank is rather dramatically disproven by the very substantial investments the industries are making in them, as well as by the fact that the auto industry as a whole has rather nicely managed to recover from the dreadful financial impacts industry analysts feared would follow the implementation of mandatory seatbelt installation. And every other safety regulation since.  

So, here's another source of information about what's being accomplished in traffic safety: Traffic Technology International  - available online and/or in print. Read. Blow your mind. 

Ride safe(r).


A Couple of Good Links

For further reading on the subject:

Vision Zero International Magazine

Traffic Technology Today

Perhaps related ...

 ... news from Vancouver this week.

And pause a moment to think about how this guy is a prime candidate for crashing into something - which is when the airbag would blow those things right into him at high velociity.

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