The increasing carnage adds up to a public health crisis.
We’re all to blame for it. But, as a New York Times columnist has argued, we also can fix this woe. Fatalities, experts say, are 94 percent attributable to “human factors,” that is to us and what we do. We’re driving too much while distracted, drunk, drugged, and drowsy. Don’t think it doesn’t apply to you. The deadly driving sins of distraction and impairment need your rapt attention to save lives, your own included, and to prevent costly harms.
Distractions taking a deadly road toll
A quick online search, sadly, pulls up a slew of evidence:
Laura Maurer, 40, an Iowa housewife, struggles daily with the guilt of killing Marvin Beck, 75, a farmer, father of four, and grandfather to 11. He was sitting atop a small tractor pulling a tiller. She was texting on her mobile phone. She didn’t see Beck before she slammed into him on the side of the road. He died in her arms. She was cited, and has been jailed for her crime. She says she can’t rid herself of sleeplessness and guilt.
These and myriad other road deaths and injuries are part of what authorities say is the newest, and rising, safety bane: Distracted driving. It’s fueled in part by improving economic conditions that have increased Americans’ miles on the road, time in their vehicles, and access to and use of mobile technologies. Gadgets are burgeoning in our cars and trucks, and we’re all obsessively multi-tasking, especially with ubiquitous cell phones.
These activities and more defy common sense, math, and physics. It may take just five seconds to text a friend, experts say. But in that time, your vehicle can hurtle the length of a football field—totally unguided by you.
Do the math: 55 miles per hour works out to 81 feet per second. Which means your 3,000- 4,000-pound car, zipping down a highway at 55 mph,can collide in a blink with another two-ton vehicle, unleashing a crushing, deadly force of 250 tons.
Road safety in reverse
Too many of us in our daily lives fail to focus on the huge responsibilities—and dangers— that come with getting behind the wheel: Although 83 percent of drivers in a national survey said they believe driving is a safety concern, 64 percent are comfortable speeding, 47 percent are fine with texting (manually or via voice controls), 13 percent think it’s acceptable to be on the road after smoking marijuana, while 10 percent are OK driving even when they think they’ve had too much to drink.
These attitudes and some other factors throw us in a road reverse. Before recent years, safety experts for decades had made huge strides in reducing traffic injuries and fatalities. With the path-breaking courage of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and others to lead the way, automakers, highway engineers, and ordinary motorists slashed vehicular harms. Cars got seat belts and then air bags, padding throughout the cabin (especially on the steering wheel), and windshields that crumbled into tiny bits rather than splintering into lethal shards. Vehicle cabins were structurally reinforced so their roofs didn’t collapse and drivers and passengers got better side-collision protection. Road signs and lighting improved. Highway dividers sprouted. Other protective barriers went up, and they were designed and built so they wouldn’t maim or kill those who crashed into them. Speed limits were lowered, while driver license ages went up. Law enforcement got public support to deal with scofflaws, especially those driving while intoxicated. The 51,000 vehicular deaths of 1979 and 1980 fell to as low as 32,479 in 2011.
It’s true that, for those of us old enough to have experienced them, driver ed programs could be too blunt and one-dimensional. Their sermons, in black-and-white slide shows, about “demon alcohol” and “wicked weed” often produced giggles. And many students did little more than get sick after gaggles of impressionable teens were herded into auditoriums to view gory films of road carnage.
A third of traffic deaths in 2014 were alcohol-related. It is still a top cause of vehicle wrecks and deaths due to impaired driving. More than 1 million Americans in that year were arrested for driving under the influence—in just a fraction of the 121 million self-reported incidences of motorists being intoxicated. Don’t drink and drive has become a common-sense slogan almost tattooed into the public consciousness. Most of us can’t get a license without learning about the dangers of driving while drunk, how blood alcohol levels are measured, and how grave the legal penalties can be for intoxication on the road.
Yet, even after decades of vigorous public health campaigns, drunk driving remains a giant problem.
It has been joined recently by new challenges. Safety and public health experts have expressed growing concern about other causes that can fog motorists’ capacity behind the wheel, including:
Prescription drug abuse, especially with opioid painkillers
As America grows increasingly gray, the members of one of the largest generations in the nation’s history will confront their mortality and declines in their skills, including their ability to drive. In 2015, 40 million of the nation’s drivers were 65 or older. Vehicle wrecks claimed 5,700 older adults’ lives and sent 236,000 to emergency care. Drivers 70 and older, especially men, show increased involvement in fatal crashes. AARP, the largest advocacy group for Americans older than 55, has listed 10 warning signs for when seniors should limit or stop driving, and it has posted information on a program with The Hartford, an insurer, and MIT’s Age Lab on working through the often difficult conversations to get older motorists to give up their keys and licenses (“We need to talk.”)
We curbed the carnage before,
and we can commit to doing it again
How do we bend the trend line downward on deaths and injuries due to distraction and impairment?
One of the biggest ways to attack the problem is personal, with all of us taking a pledge to at least:
Protect lives by never texting or talking on the phone while driving.
Be a good passenger and speak out if the driver in my car is distracted.
Encourage my friends and family to drive phone-free.
We also can try to enjoy driving for itself, not using it as time to conduct frenzied business by smart device, by eating, arguing, blasting the latest hit tunes, and engaging in all manner of other distractions. We can ask a designated passenger, if absolutely necessary, to assist, say, with navigation, so the driver isn’t preoccupied with this chore. (Some apps and devices already encourage motorists to take on the more complicated task of entering their destination and choosing driving options only when stopped, for safety’s sake.) We can recommit, sensibly, to driving only while suitably rested, not stressed, and focused. We can choose to not get behind the wheel after drinking or using drugs.
Restore funding for driver education in public schools
Pass tougher laws to bar cell phone use while driving, except in emergencies, and to increase enforcement of tough rules
Reduce speed limits
Increase oversight of auto makers and (distracting) tech options they build into their products
Toughen enforcement of intoxication and impairment laws, fund public awareness campaigns about them
We all benefit if we buckle up. We can not only support laws that call for phased privileges for teens who get driver licenses, we also can help young people carry these out with our grownup supervision. If you’re a motorcyclist and you’re adamant that Big Government shouldn’t force you to wear a helmet, that’s fine. But you can choose by yourself to put on a helmet for the sake of your friends, family, and loved ones.
Experts have looked at street signs and design to better protect those on foot from cars and trucks. Police, sometimes with state and federal funding, periodically crack down on unsafe motorists in areas heavily used by pedestrians. Officials have campaigned to get pedestrians to: use crosswalks, stay on sidewalks, wear visible clothing or reflective gear, and carry flashlights at night and near dawn and dusk.
Because the miles that pedestrians covered didn’t increase in 2016, experts blame the spike in fatalities on distractions for those walking and driving. They urged pedestrians to ensure that they, like drivers, aren’t imperiling themselves with cell phones, musical devices, eating, drinking, or conversation.
As for cyclists, Uncle Sam says they accounted for 2 percent of all traffic deaths (about 800) and 2 percent of all crash-related injuries in 2014. These fatalities occurred most often between 6 and 9 at night, and in cities. Most casualties were men, and the largest numbers of injured males were 20 to 24 years old.
It won’t always be easy or fun, but speak up: Passengers need to object to distracted or impaired drivers in public transportation. Cab, bus, and train drivers may violate laws or policies, and they can put passengers at major risk by failing to focus on the road.
In Manhattan, a major American taxi capital, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has Chapter 80 of driver rules, stating: “Drivers are not allowed to use cell phones, Bluetooths or any handheld or hands-free electronic devices while operating their vehicles.” They can be ticketed and required to attend a special class to get them up to speed on distracted driving. Officials suggest that riders politely tell their drivers they can’t use devices while transporting them around the city. Here’s how to complain (click here).
Nationally, one of the major risk-management and insurers for schools, colleges, and universities has issued a report on reducing distracted driving among bus drivers. The firm noted that bus “accidents amount to 16 percent of the total number of public school claims, costing more than $7 million in losses. Two claims approached the $1 million mark, demonstrating how easily costs can skyrocket.”
The National Transportation Safety Board—which investigates major mishaps in commercial aviation, and in other modes of transportation, including by rail, highway, and the seas—has deemed distracted operation a major issue. A trade publication notes that the agency, without involvement in probes of most highway crashes, “since 2003 … has found distraction from portable electronic devices as a cause or contributing factor in 11 [major] accident investigations. Those crashes resulted in 259 people injured and 50 people killed.”
HERE’S TO A HEALTHY 2017!
Patrick Malone & Associates
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