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Traffic Deaths: Distracted Drivers and Pedestrians

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Data on 2017 traffic deaths were released in February by the National Safety Council. They showed a 1% decrease (to 40,100) from 2016 overall, but a report released in March by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that pedestrian deaths continued to increase, to an estimated nearly 6,000 for 2017, after a similar total was reached in 2016. Between 2007 and 2016, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), pedestrian deaths increased by 27%, while all other traffic deaths decreasedby 14%. What is going on here?
Cited as potential factors are the greatly increased use of mobile devices by both drivers and pedestrians. Kelly Blue Book auto analyst Rebecca Lindland told USA Today, “We’ve got distracted drivers, and we’ve got distracted pedestrians, and that is a deadly combination.” And yet, this kind of distraction is largely absent in official accident records, which are based on reports filed by the officers on scene. Most accident report forms include alcohol as a cause, but not cell-phone use, texting, or fiddling with dash-mounted infotainment systems.
Some research is capturing such causal factors, however. The National Safety Council did a reassessment of 2015 fatal-accident data, and estimated that cell phone use was involved in 26% of all these accidents. A 2017 study by Cambridge Mobile Telematics estimated that one-fourth of drivers were using their phones just before or during a crash. And don’t forget hands-free phoning in a vehicle. Several laboratory studies have found that drivers get just as distracted during a hands-free phone conversation as in a hand-held one. Two recent studiesone by AT&T in 2016 and another in 2017 by AAA both found that two-thirds of drivers admit to using smartphones while driving.
Drowsy driving is listed as the cause in only 1 to 2% of crashes in federal statistics, but the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 9.5% of all crashes involved drowsy driving, and 10.8% of all severe crashes. Last year AAA released the results of their study of dashboard distractions built into newer vehicles as another cause of driver distraction. This study was done by David Strayer of the University of Utah. He told AP reporter Joan Lowy that this array of buttons and touch screens is “adding more and more layers of complexity and information at drivers’ fingertips,” which increases the time a driver spends looking at the displays and controls, rather than out the windshield. AAA’s director of traffic safety reported that in AAA tests of 30 different 2017 model year cars and light trucks, drivers took their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel when using these systems, especially when programming in-vehicle navigation systems and when texting.
As a decades-ago member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, I think SAE has defaulted on its professional obligation to promulgate industry standards for in-dash equipment. These systems are hazardous and need to be redesigned to be far simpler to use; some should not be usable at all while the vehicle is in motion. Likewise, the mobile device industry should do a better job of offering and promoting systems that limit their operation while in motion.
(This article first ran in the April 2018 edition of Surface Transportation Innovations.)
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