Why Are Iowa Drivers So Safe?

Last week we reported that you can feel pretty safe the next time you drive down the streets of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, because a new study from Allstate Insurance Company ranked the residents of Cedar Rapids as the safest drivers in the U.S. The finding came in "America's Best Drivers Report," the first-of-its kind ranking of U.S. cities with populations 100,000-plus.  Among the revelations was the fact that the average driver in the central Iowa city will experience an auto collision every 15 years, compared to the national likelihood of a crash every 10 years.  This makes Cedar Rapidians 33.28 percent less likely to have an accident than the national average.

But the big question is how do they do it?  What makes Cedar Rapids such an icon of driving safety?  Perhaps surprisingly, there are answers.  First, Cedar Rapids takes a serious and proactive approach to roadway improvements and law enforcement, according to city safety commissioner and police officer Dave Zahn.

"Our traffic engineers work hand-in-hand with the community members to minimize traffic congestion and collision frequency," Zahn said. "For example, we recently expanded a 15-block strip of Mt. Vernon Road, one of our busier streets, from four lanes to five. Since its completion, collisions are down 66 percent on that stretch of road."
Zahn also pointed to Cedar Rapid's courteous driving style as a reason for the city's top ranking. He outlined lessons that all drivers could learn from Cedar Rapids residents.  Among them:

Signs mean something.  Traffic signs are here to help us. "Yield, stop and school zone speed limits are meant to be followed, not ignored," Zahn said.

Respect sirens. "Pull over to the side of the road when you see emergency vehicles," Zahn said. "I always tell people 'You never know. You may be the one in the back of that ambulance some day.'"

A yellow really does mean caution.  "Slow down -- don't speed up -- when approaching a yellow light," Zahn stressed.

Speeding gets you nowhere fast. "Exceeding the speed limit won't get you to your destination any faster," Zahn said. "The few minutes you save you'll lose sitting at the next red light anyway."
Courtesy matters on the road, too.  "Treat those you share the road with the same as you would your friends, family and co-workers," Zahn concluded.

While drivers in Cedar Rapids seem to out-pace their fellow Americans in courtesy, consideration and adherence to traffic rules, the national outlook isn't as rosy.  Nationwide, U.S. drivers experienced more than 8.7 million collisions during the two-year period examined by the study, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Insurance notes more crashes occur on Saturdays than any other day of the week. Friday ranked second and Thursday came in third. Collisions are least likely to occur on Sundays thanks, no doubt, to the quality of Sunday drivers. Collisions are most likely to happen between three and six PM.  The fewest crashes occur between midnight and three am.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini does most of his driving between midnight and three AM just to stay safe.

America's Safest

You can feel pretty safe the next time you drive down the streets of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Why?  Because according to a new study from Allstate Insurance Company, the residents of Cedar Rapids rank as the safest drivers in the U.S.

The "America's Best Drivers Report" is the first-of-its kind ranking of U.S. cities with populations 100,000-plus.  Among the revelations was the startling fact that the average driver in the central Iowa city will experience an auto collision every 15 years, compared to the national likelihood of a crash every 10 years.  This makes Cedar Rapidians 33.28 percent less likely to have an accident than the national average. Of course, the study didn't just dwell on Iowa, as appealing as that might have been.  Allstate researchers analyzed internal data to determine the likelihood drivers in America's largest 196 cities would experience an auto collision compared to the national average.

Following Cedar Rapids were (in ascending order of crash likelihood) Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Huntsville, Alabama; Knoxville, Tennessee; Des Moines, Iowa; Topeka, Kansas; Lakewood, Colorado; Fort Collins, Colorado and Birmingham, Alabama.

Conspicuously absent from this Top 10 list were residents of big cities.  That's not surprising since, according to Allstate, drivers in U.S. cities with populations of one million-plus are more likely than the national average to experience a collision. Phoenix was the top-ranked city for safety among cities with populations of one million or more.  It mirrored the national collision average of one accident every 10 years, while others were progressively worse.

Among other cities with a million-plus population San Diego was runner-up to Phoenix, followed by Houston, San Antonio, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia.  A driver in Philadelphia is 46.2 percent more likely to be involved in a collision than the national average.

When it comes to medium-size cities of half-a-million to one million residents, Milwaukee ranked tops in safety.  In relative freedom from collisions the city made famous by beer was followed by Memphis, Nashville, El Paso, Oklahoma City, Tucson, Indianapolis, Denver, Jacksonville, and Portland, Oregon.   

"What makes this report from Allstate valuable is that it is based on real world collision data from actual drivers," said Allan Williams, the recently retired chief scientist and researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Also, Allstate's auto policies represent about 12 percent of the U.S. population, making this report a realistic snapshot of what's happening on America's roadways."

Why do some metro areas do well and others do poorly?

"Many factors contribute to how cities rank in the report," said Williams. "Some factors -- demographic makeup, commuting patterns and city design -- cannot be changed; others, like smart traffic engineering and strong law enforcement initiatives, can help to prevent crashes in metropolitan areas."

Auto journalist Luigi Fraschini is based in Cleveland, a city that failed to make any of the lists for safest drivers.

Vehicle Death Rate Figures are In

As passenger ships go, the Titanic had one of the highest death rates in history.  But was it an inherent problem in the vessel's design and/or construction or was running into the iceberg the big problem?

That's the type of question that should be asked -- but often isn't -- when it comes to looking at automotive death rates by vehicle.  For instance, the two-door, two-wheel-drive Chevrolet Blazer sport utility vehicle was cited as having the highest rate of driver death from 2000 through 2003, according to a study just released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. There were 308 driver deaths per million registered years during the four-year span between 1999 and 2002, the study by the insurance industry-funded group found. The Blazer also had the highest rollover death rate at 251 deaths per million registered years. 

At first glance, it seems as if the Chevrolet Blazer is the most dangerous vehicle of the last few years, especially when one considers the rollover statistic that seems to confirm the worst of the general public's thoughts on SUVs.  But while the study and, more important, the reporting that stems from the study seems to point the finger at the vehicle and at other vehicles that have high death rates, it seems to minimize the culpability of the drivers. 

From a portion of the report titled, ominously, "Vehicle body style, size, and fatality risk" the reports says, "important characteristics of vehicles that influence their driver death rates are type, body style, size, and weight. Within virtually every group of vehicles, the smaller and lighter models have the higher rates [of fatalities]."  No mention of drivers' tendencies at all.

Like the debate over genetics versus environment, the debate over whether the vehicle or the driver is the more important contributor to driver deaths at the wheel seems never-ending.  Which prompts us to bring back the Titanic analogy.  If the helmsman of the Titanic hadn't steered it into the iceberg, wouldn't its maiden voyage have ended in triumph rather than tragedy?  Similarly, if the drivers of Chevrolet Blazers were soccer moms and retirees instead of young singles, many of whom presumably drink and carouse, wouldn't the vehicle have a significantly lower driver death rate without one whit of mechanical change?

IIHS hints at the driver-as-cause phenomenon later in its report when it acknowledges "Because driver demographics can be a major influence, the death rate for each vehicle was adjusted according to the proportion of deaths of women 25-64 years old. These drivers are involved in fewer fatal crashes per licensed driver. For most vehicles the rates were adjusted by less than 20 percent."

A detailed explanation of how that "adjustment" was performed was not forthcoming from IIHS, but its CEO, Adrian Lund said, "This is the first year we've adjusted the rates to account for some driver characteristics.  The adjustment takes away some of the differences among vehicles caused by differences in driver gender. Other demographic factors still influence the death rates, but more of the differences in the rates reflect the vehicles."

Many would call Lund's last statement opinion rather than fact.  So while individual vehicle models' "death rates" might garner headlines and sound bites, the data could well be reflecting the behavior of the drivers who own those models rather than the characteristics of the vehicles themselves.  After all, the Titanic's sistership didn't sink, did it?

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad doesn't just write about cars; he also has a morbid fascination with shipwrecks.

Killed by Cargo

What's in your trunk today?  A giant bag of cat litter?  A set of golf clubs?  A bowling ball?  A toolbox full of socket wrenches?  A pair of cement overshoes?  The fact is, you probably don't give much thought to what's now residing in your trunk, but you should.  Why?  Because heavy objects in the trunk of your car can become lethal projectiles in a crash.

Take the case of Ludy Galiana, as reported on CBS-TV's "The Early Show."  The Cuban-born actress was riding in the backseat of a car, wearing her seatbelt as she should have been, when that car was struck head-on by a pickup truck.  The other five occupants of the car survived the horrible impact, but Galiana didn't.  Despite the fact that she was riding in the backseat, the safest portion of the vehicle, she was killed by the impact of a toolbox in the trunk that can flying through the backseat upon the sudden impact with the truck.  She was actually crushed by the force of the toolbox slamming her against the seatbelt.

Was it a freak accident?  Certainly.  Could it happen again?  Yes.  The reason, despite a laundry list of safety regulations promulgated by the U.S. government, car manufacturers are not required to test their seatbacks to make certain they are strong enough to withstand the forces caused by collisions acting on unsecured cargo in vehicle trunks.  These forces can be immense and deadly.  In fact, unsecured cargo and, for that matter, unsecured passengers within a vehicle's passenger compartment can also become lethal projectiles in a high-speed accident.

In light of these threats, vehicles built to European safety standards must pass a cargo-retention test, so cars imported from Europe are less likely to be involved in the kind of horrible accident that killed Ludy Galiana.  But according to Alan Cantor, an auto safety expert who specializes in car crash issues, there are steps you can take to make your drive safer.  Cantor, who founded and operates ARCCA, Incorporated, a technology service firm specializing in crash analysis and survival, suggest that you should never put more items in the trunk than you absolutely need to transport.   If you are going to carry heavy items in your trunk, he said, put them as close as you can to the seatback and try to distribute the load so that it is as even as possible.  Actually wedging them in place can reduce their tendency to get airborne in a crash.  If you must carry heavy items routinely, Cantor suggests that you tie them down or store them in a cargo net.

The safety expert would like to see more robust seatbacks combined with stronger structures that would help prevent the kind of tragedy that the Galiana family experienced.  Further, items within the passenger compartment should also be secured, because they can have lethal affects when the violent forces of a collision act on them.  You and your family should know that what they can't see can hurt them.

Tom Ripley, who writes on the auto industry and the human condition, has frequently transported heavy items in his car's trunk, but now he's more careful.


Friends Don't Let Kids Drive with Teens

It seems like an innocent thing to do.  You're running late so you ask your teenager to drive one of his or her younger siblings to t-ball practice.  You child is responsible and a good driver.  What's the harm?

First, statistics indicate that teenagers are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents than adults.  Perhaps equally important, teenagers in general seem less likely to follow the prescribed procedures for transporting children, i.e., having them ride in the back seat, insisting that they are properly restrained in a child-safety seat, etc.

A national study of car crashes reports that children who were driven by teenagers were three times as likely to have a serious injury as those who were driven by adults. Interestingly, the risk was highest for young teenaged passengers, those ages 13 to 15, not for younger children.

According to researchers from Partners for Child Passenger Safety (PCPS), a research partnership of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm, teen drivers were more likely than adult drivers to be involved in more severe crashes and less likely to have child passengers under age nine properly restrained. The study, published in this month's issue of Injury Prevention, looked at the cases of 19,111 children who were involved in 12,163 crashes reported to State Farm.

Overall, teenagers were the drivers in just four percent of these child-involved crashes. But when a child was injured, teenagers were much more likely to be driving. Some 12 percent of the injured children had a teen driver. And while this might conjure up the image of teenagers fooling around together and getting in over their heads, the study showed that  40 percent of teen-driven child passengers were younger than 13, suggesting that teens regularly drive younger children.

"The excess risk of injury to children in teen driver crashes can be primarily explained by the more severe crashes those teen drivers incurred," said Flaura Winston, MD, Ph.D., principal investigator for Partners for Child Passenger Safety and the scientific director of TraumaLink, a pediatric injury research center at Children's Hospital. "The severity is likely a function of a teen driver's inexperienced driving or risk-taking behavior and immaturity."

Statistics showed that children were less likely to be properly belted in when teenagers were at the wheel, and it also noted that child passengers were more likely to be seated in the front seat when driven by 15- to 17-year-old drivers. Children riding with these novice teen drivers were three times as likely to have no restraint at all as those accompanied by adult drivers.

"Parents need to understand the excess risk of allowing their teens to drive younger siblings," said Winston. "Parents should reinforce over and over the importance of safe driving habits among their teens to not only reduce their high crash rates but also to make sure that the teen driver and the passengers are appropriately restrained on every trip."

Boston-bred journalist Tom Ripley now covers the automotive world and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.