Hold the Phone

Splash!  The conclusions of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's most recent study on cellular phone use in automobiles recently got a lot of play in the worldwide media.  The conclusions of the study were stunning.  The report stated that drivers using phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves.  And in addition, the report opined that "banning hand-held phone use won't necessarily enhance safety if drivers simply switch to hands-free phones. Injury crash risk didn't differ from one type of reported phone use to the other."

But when one takes a more critical look at the study and the press release that accompanied its publication, questions emerge.  The most telling question, of course, is: is the study a reliable, rational way to examine cellular phone usage in automobiles in the United States?

The first issue is the locale in which the study was done -- the Western Australia city of Perth.  Are the drivers and driving conditions there analogous to U.S. drivers and driving conditions?  Another issue is the inferences that were drawn to derive the conclusions.  For instance, the researchers did not ask the subjects of the study -- drivers who were treated in Western Australia emergency rooms in 2002 through 2004 -- if they were using their phone at the time of their individual crashes.  Instead, purportedly to avoid asking drivers to admit some culpability because they were talking when they should have been driving, the researchers asked the drivers how often they used their cell phones and derived from that an estimate of the numbers who were speaking on cell phones prior to or during their accidents.  As the IIHS put it, "The increased risk was estimated by comparing phone use within 10 minutes before an actual crash occurred with use by the same driver during the prior week."

Yet another question has to do with the study's conclusions on hands-free versus hand-held phones.  On this issue the IIHS was not equivocal.  

"You'd think using a hands-free phone would be less distracting, so it wouldn't increase crash risk as much as using a hand-held phone," said Anne McCartt, IIHS vice president for research and an author of the study. "But we found that either phone type increased the risk."

But one might wonder how that conclusion was drawn since Western Australia bans hand-held mobile phones from use in cars and trucks.  That being said, one-third of the drivers said their calls had been placed on hand-held phones.  Does that represent a level playing field for a comparison of risk between hands-free and hand-held phones?

According to IIHS, weather wasn't a factor in the crashes, because almost 75 percent of the crashes occurred in clear conditions. Eighty-nine percent of the crashes involved other vehicles. More than half of the injured drivers reported that their crashes occurred within 10 minutes of the start of the trip.

The implications of this data are obvious.  First, we must ban driving on clear days because that is clearly a more dangerous time to drive than during inclement weather.  Second, we must ban all other vehicles from the roadways because a huge majority of accidents involve other vehicles.  And finally, we should ban trips because a majority of injuries came soon after trips began.

A student of auto safety and the human condition, Tom Ripley writes for Driving Today and other publications from his home in Villeperce, France. 

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.