Study Says American Drivers Suck

If you've driven around America much lately, as we have, you have undoubtedly experienced some mighty poor driving.  Now there is more than anecdotal evidence that American drivers are woefully in need of refresher courses in basic driving skills.  The results of the second annual GMAC Insurance National Drivers Test suggest that licensed Americans "lack basic driving knowledge and exhibit alarming behaviors on the road." The study revealed that one in 11 drivers -- nearly 18 million people -- would fail a state drivers test if one were administered to them today. Furthermore, the study shows drivers deliberately disregard pedestrians and treat driving as the new "down time," where they catch up on the day's activities, diverting their attention from the road.

The startling results come one year after GMAC Insurance first set out to gauge the knowledge of the American driving public, when licensed drivers were administered 20 questions found on a typical DMV written drivers test. Reinforcing last year's discoveries, the new findings indicate drivers still do not have adequate knowledge of basic rules of the road, and they exhibit bad habits behind the wheel.

"The rules of the road should not be something you learn once when you are 16 years old," said Gary Kusumi, CEO and president, GMAC Insurance Personal Lines. "We want to remind everyone that they need to work on their driving skills every day. If we're all diligent, we can avoid many accidents and stay safe."

Perhaps the most dangerous behavior discovered by the study regards drivers' concern for pedestrians.  The fact is, there isn't much for concern for pedestrians, according to the study. Roughly one in three drivers usually do not stop for pedestrians even if they're in a crosswalk or at a yellow light.  At least one out of five drivers do not know that a pedestrian has the right of way at a marked or unmarked crosswalk. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), pedestrians constitute the second largest category of motor vehicle crash deaths after vehicle occupants, accounting for 11 percent of fatalities.  (Of course, the analytical thinker might question where else victims might be if they are neither in a vehicle nor at roadside? In blimps?  Below manhole covers?)
 
Be that as it may, 43 percent of all pedestrian injuries and 22 percent of fatal injuries to pedestrians occur in collisions with motor vehicles at intersections. In addition, many pedestrians are killed on sidewalks, median strips and traffic islands.  (None, however, was reported killed on "Fantasy Island."  Good news.)
 
Of equal concern is a growing trend in which Americans treat driving as a time to catch up on activities they didn't get to in their hectic day. Results show that while driving, American drivers engage in a variety of distracting behaviors, including chatting on a cell phone, sending text messages, e-mailing friends, selecting songs on iPods, applying makeup, changing clothes and reading. Drivers aged 18-24 are the most likely to engage in these distracting -- and dangerous -- behaviors.
 
For the second year in a row, Oregon drivers ranked highest on the test, with an average score of 91 percent (70 percent or higher is required to pass a standard drivers test), and Rhode Island's drivers ranked lowest, with an average score of 75 percent. Overall, drivers in the Northeast region are most apt to fail the test, with state failure rates of 16 percent or more.  Drivers in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest regions are the most knowledgeable, with state failure rates ranging from one percent to seven percent.

If you'd like to see how you would do, the drivers test administered in the study is available to the public online at GMAC Insurance.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley frequently visits the United States in his quest to report on the auto industry and the human condition.  He lives in Villeperce, France.

Child Safety and the SUV

A study that hit the news recently delivered a counterintuitive message. When the general news media reported on the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, it gave the impression that sport utility vehicles were no safer for child-passengers than cars. But according to analysis of a much broader study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), children are at least twice as safe in SUVs than in passenger cars when properly restrained. Of course, NHTSA is the federal government agency responsible for automobile and highway safety.

"Two times safer means a lot safer, and this is vital information that parents, grandparents and caregivers need to know," said Barry McCahill, president of Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America (SUVOA). "Unfortunately, it was widely reported that SUVs provide no more crash protection for children than cars -- and that's just not true."

The comprehensive NHTSA study, "Child Passenger Fatalities and Injuries Based on Restraint Use, Vehicle Type, Seat Position, and Number of Vehicles in the Crash," considered all fatal crashes, as well as injury crashes. In looking at crashes involving both restrained and unrestrained children researchers found that for children in safety seats or safety belts injuries were 21 percent greater for cars than SUVs, and SUVs provide 2 to 2.4 times better protection from fatal injury than cars.

"The NHTSA study documents still again that what you drive has much to do with crash outcome," McCahill said. "All else being equal in safety equipment, occupants of a larger vehicle fare better in a crash, which is why an SUV is among the smartest safety choices. They may cost more to operate, but the added expense could be viewed as another form of life insurance."
 
Why the discrepancy between the findings of the two studies? SUVOA believes the findings reported in Pediatrics were the result of a much smaller scale study based on a sample of less than one tenth of one percent of all crash-injured children, and it was limited to only 16 states. Perhaps the biggest reason for the discrepancy is that the study made no distinction between the types of injury reported -- small cuts and brain injuries were considered equal -- and the injuries were self-reported by the driver of the vehicle involved.

"The NHTSA study is far more authoritative because it is national in scope and much more extensive. Moreover, it comes from the agency that is the premier source for auto crash data collection and analysis," McCahill added. "Parents should look to the NHTSA findings for the bottom line in which vehicles are safest for their children."

Vehicle safety is evolving constantly. McCahill said automakers should continue to make SUVs and all vehicles even safer by equipping them with electronic stability control (ESC) to help prevent rollover crashes. Because SUVs have a greater tendency to roll over than cars, this, and other design and engineering technologies will further widen the rollover safety gap between SUVs and cars.

"But most highway tragedies are not the vehicle's fault. Adults should make sure children ride in a safety seat or safety belt for older children, and buckle up themselves," McCahill said. "That may sound like staid advice, but it's still your best chance of survival in a crash." 

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley is no stranger to life-and-death situations. He reports on the auto industry and the human condition from Villeperce, France.

The Auto Theft Capital

When Horace Greeley said, "Go West, young man," car thieves were apparently listening.  According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) for calendar year 2005, the West, and particularly California, is heaven and haven for the nation's auto thieves. All of the nation's top 10 areas with the highest vehicle theft rates are in the West with six of them in California.

For 2005 the 10 metropolitan statistical areas with the highest vehicle theft rates are:
1. Modesto, CA
2. Las Vegas/Paradise, NV
3. Stockton, CA
4. Phoenix/Mesa/Scottsdale, AZ
5. Visalia/Porterville, CA
6. Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue, WA
7. Sacramento/Arden-Arcade/Roseville, CA
8. San Diego/Carlsbad/San Marcos, CA
9. Fresno, CA
10. Yakima, WA

The rate is determined by the number of vehicle theft offenses per 100,000 inhabitants using the 2004 U.S. Census Population Estimates, the most current figures available.
Preliminary FBI data shows a 2.1 percent decrease in motor vehicle thefts during January-June 2005 when compared with the same period in 2004. Nationally, this is the second straight year of decreases in vehicle theft and that is good news.

One note about the statistics, as well -- they are indicative of the auto theft rates in what laymen might call "metropolitan areas," not just cities.  So, for example, the numero uno on the list -- Modesto, California -- includes data not only from the city of Modesto, but the entire county of Stanislaus in which Modesto is located.  In the creation of Hot Spots, its annual report on auto theft rates, NICB reviewed data supplied by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) for each of the nation's 360 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs).  While thefts are down slightly on a national basis, they are still cause for alarm.

"The continued reduction in auto thefts is good news for our member companies and the general public," said NICB President and Chief Executive Officer Robert M. Bryant. "NICB has been instrumental in attacking this problem through expanded efforts with our member companies and law enforcement. For example, the bait car program is most effective and in those communities where bait cars are employed, there have been significant declines in the auto theft problem."

While the NICB is attacking the problem on a macro basis, you can do the same by protecting the safety and security of your own vehicle.  We'll tell you how next week in the second of this two-part series.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the car industry and the human condition, which includes crime and unusual uses for body hair, from his home in Villeperce, France.

What Will Go Wrong?

Murphy's Law says whatever can go wrong will go wrong. That is accompanied by the Fraschini Corollary that intones nothing is as easy as it should be. Now we all know that these two time-tested principles apply to automobiles, which are, along with DVD players, VCRs, and electric toothbrushes, among the most complicated consumer products known to woman and man. But let's get a little more specific here. When it comes to cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs, just what does go wrong? What should you, as a consumer/owner/operator really be looking out for?

Luckily, the fine folks at AAA have quantified that for us. During nationwide clinics conducted by AAA and its affiliated repair facilities during last year's AAA Car Care Month, inspections conducted on nearly 6,500 vehicles by 20 different AAA clubs resulted in a good snapshot of what could be going wrong right now on your personal chariot.

Tire pressure was the number one vehicle issue identified by the study. This is bad news because inattention to tire pressure can have serious safety implications. Low tire pressure can cause poor vehicle handling and may lead to a blow-out that can have potentially catastrophic effects. The good news is that the fix is simple and free.

"Drivers should check tire pressure at least once a month to assure tires are not under- or over-inflated," said Mike Lavoie, the 2006 NAPA Technician of the Year and owner of Lavoie's NAPA AutoCare Center in Haverhill, New Hampshire. "Low pressure in the tires can increase wear and fuel consumption, while having too much pressure may reduce traction. Keeping tires properly aligned will also help assure longer tire life and improve fuel economy."
 
Engine oil that was low or needed changing was the second most common malady the study discovered. Operating vehicles low on oil will typically cause wear in camshafts, bearings and valves that will cost your engine a substantial portion of its life. If the level gets too low this wear could cause very costly failures up to and including "blown" engines. Again, the fix is simple: Check the oil level regularly and change the oil at frequent intervals.

Clogged air filters were the third most common issue. NAPA's Lavoie said that maintaining and replacing air filters when needed will ensure better air flow to the engine. This, in turn, will improve engine efficiency and result in more power and better fuel mileage.

While it might seem so rudimentary as to be ludicrous, low windshield washer fluid was the fourth area that needed to be addressed. It might not even seem to be a problem, but poor visibility can be a safety hazard. The fix: Fill 'er up and check the reservoir now and then.

Insufficient or dirty engine coolant was the fifth most common issue. Having a full cooling system is essential to maintaining a safe engine temperature, and dirty coolant with depleted additives can no longer protect the cooling system's iron, steel, copper, and aluminum parts from corrosion and deterioration. Remember, overheating can destroy an engine quickly, and an engine replacement is very costly.

"The coolant reservoir should be checked monthly and topped off with the appropriate antifreeze and water mixture as needed," said Lavoie. "It's easy to check the windshield washer fluid at the same time."
 
Other areas cited as needing attention during the inspections included battery cables/clamps/terminals, antifreeze protection, wiper blades, tire tread, and transmission fluid.

Cleveland-based auto writer Luigi Fraschini performs a great deal of his own maintenance, and he also works on his car.

Idiot Lights for Dummies

The pejorative term for them is “idiot lights.”  Every time you start your car they glow to greet you, but after a few seconds of engine operation they fade away, and, if you’re lucky, you won’t see them again until the next time you start the engine. These days, with cars more complicated than ever, it seems as if drivers are frequently confronted with these red and yellow indicators on the instrument panel but are not quite sure what to do about them. 

Experts say what you should do is pay attention to the warning being given.  It might seem as if your vehicle is “running fine,” but serious damage could result if you don’t pay heed to the warning light.

“Motorists need to be aware of the critical ‘big three’ warning lights,” said John Nielsen, Director of AAA Automotive. “They include those that monitor engine oil pressure, engine coolant temperature and the vehicle charging system.  To reduce the chances of vehicle damage and a roadside breakdown, these warning lights require prompt and proper action when they illuminate.”
 
It’s not too hard to figure out why these lights are designated the big three.  Each one is indicative of a symptom that could easily stop your vehicle in its tracks and strand you by the side of the road.  Two of them are also indicative of conditions that can cause catastrophic engine failure, which won’t only leave you stationary, it will also cost you thousands of dollars to repair.

The engine oil pressure warning light commonly displays an oil can symbol or the word "OIL." When the oil pressure warning light illuminates, it is signaling that the engine has lost the pressure that supplies lubricating oil to vital engine parts. Severe engine damage can occur within seconds. Of all the warning lights, the oil pressure light indicates the greatest potential for serious mechanical damage, and it also allows you the shortest time in which to take appropriate action.

If the oil pressure warning light comes on, and stays on, pull off the road immediately and shut off the engine. Unless you are in an extremely dangerous situation, do not attempt to drive the vehicle any farther. Operating the engine without oil pressure can significantly increase the extent of damage, turning what might just be a minor repair into a complete engine replacement.

The engine coolant temperature warning light commonly displays a thermometer symbol or the logo "TEMP." When the coolant temperature light illuminates, the engine temperature has exceeded the safe maximum. Until the rise in coolant temperature is reversed, the engine will suffer accelerated wear. If the increase in temperature continues, major engine damage will result.
 
The coolant temperature warning light is second only to the oil pressure warning light in indicating the potential for serious mechanical damage. However, the coolant temperature light does give you a little more time in which to take appropriate action. If the coolant temperature warning light comes on, quickly assess the situation. Steam or liquid coolant coming from under the hood are clear indications of overheating or a leak. But even if you don’t see steam or fluid, high coolant temperature can still cause major problems.  Pull off the road at the first safe opportunity and call for assistance. Continuing to operate an engine with an illuminated temperature warning light could result in a major damage and a significant repair bill.

The charging system warning light commonly displays a battery symbol or the logo "ALT" or "GEN." When the charging system warning light illuminates, the vehicle’s electrical system is no longer being supplied with power by the alternator. This means at some point your car will run out of stored electrical energy and stall.  But the good news is a charging system failure rarely results in serious mechanical damage, and of the "big three" warning lights, it is the one that gives you the greatest amount of time to take appropriate action. Depending on the electrical demands of your vehicle and the reserve capacity of its battery, you will generally have at least 20 minutes of daylight driving time before voltage drops to the point where the engine will quit.

If the charging system warning light comes on, turn off all unnecessary electrical accessories and drive to the nearest repair facility to have the vehicle checked. If you are some distance from a repair shop, drive to a safe location where you can call AAA or another towing or repair service.

In his line of work Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley hates being stuck by the side of the road. He reports on the car industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.