Making Your Vacation Safe

Road trips are great fun.  Getting in a car and venturing away from home can be one of the biggest joys of the summer months, but unfortunately, some trips end in financial loss or even tragedy. Frequently travelers become the targets of thieves, because they are transporting large amounts of money and other valuables.  And while they are away, vacationers often leave their homes open targets for thieves as well. 

The first rule for travelers is to use caution with your personal belongings while you are away.  Use the hotel safe to store valuable items instead of leaving them lying around your hotel room. Keep the entry and balcony doors locked and use deadbolts and chains whenever possible, and don't open the door to anyone. Even if someone saying he's a hotel repairman shows up outside your room, call the front desk to verify that a repairman has been sent.  And to ensure your security, don't leave keys lying around when you're at the beach or pool.

On the road, don't leave valuables inside your car where they can be seen. Always lock your car doors, even if you will be gone just for a few minutes. And at night, park in a lighted, visible place. If someone seems to be following you as you walk to your car, walk past it and find help.

You should also remember that while you're away, your home is more vulnerable to crime than you are.  Houses that don't look lived in are very appealing targets for burglars, but a few precautions can reduce the risk.

"Residential burglaries are most likely to occur if the residence appears to be unoccupied and if access seems relatively easy," says Ron Lovatt, managing director of insurance products for the Auto Club's Interinsurance Exchange. "Homeowners can take a few simple steps to help deter burglars."

First, secure your home.  Double-check all door and window locks and invest in slide lock protection for sliding-glass doors, a frequent point of entry for burglars. Garage windows and doors should also be secured. Then, do your best to make your house look lived-in.  Have a trusted friend to stop by your home at different times while you are away or, better yet, stay in your home as a house sitter.  If you can't arrange that, consider buying a number of timers to turn your lights on every evening. Setting up multiple timers in alternating rooms works best. Putting a timer on a radio is also a good idea.  And temporarily cancel newspaper subscriptions and postpone mail delivery, because multiple newspapers in front of a residence and a stuffed mail box are invitations to burglars.

Another way to give your house a lived-in look is parking a vehicle in your driveway while you are away. If you will be away for more than a week, ask a friend to change the position of the car a few times during your absence.  And by all means, remove garage door openers from cars parked outside.

Remember you work hard all year to earn your vacation.  Isn't it worth a few minutes of your time to make certain the vacation ends happily?

Boston native Tom Ripley now covers the automotive scene and the human condition - including its frailties - from his home in Villeperce, France.

Staying in Control

For the last 50 years auto safety advocates have concentrated most of their efforts on making auto accidents more survivable for vehicle occupants.  Because of this, we have such safety advancements as airbags, auto body "crush zones," and the greatest safety advancement of the era, the simple seat belt.  While no one can doubt the efficacy of these advancements, there is another area of research and development that promises equally startling advancements to the cause of safety, and it revolves around vehicle systems that help keep accidents from occurring in the first place.  Auto engineers call it "active safety," while referring to things like airbags as "passive safety systems."

The ultimate active safety system would be an accident-avoidance system -- technology that now seems like Jules Vernesque science fiction, but is actually coming closer and closer to reality in the real world.  Such a system would have the ability to take total control of the vehicle from the driver in critically dangerous conditions, slowing the engine, applying the brakes and even steering the vehicle out of danger.  

We're not there yet, but current technology includes a system that comes close.  Today's Electronic Stability Control (or ESC) doesn't take over steering control from the driver, but it does enhance the driver's ability to stay in control of his or her car and steer it out of danger.  By combining the technologies of anti-lock brakes, traction control, and enhanced lateral stability, ESC detects when a driver is about to lose control of a vehicle and automatically intervenes to provide stability and help the driver stay on course. In a recent study, ESC was shown to increase a driver's control over his or her vehicle by 34 percent, making the technology a milestone on the path to safer cars.

Even the most skillful driver can't match ESC's ability to help maintain vehicle control, because ESC does things that the best driver can't do - namely applying brakes to individual wheels when instability is detected by its electronic sensors and reported to its computer "brain."

While Europeans have benefited from the advantages of ESC for several years now, Americans have been a bit slower to adopt the technology.  But in 2004, many major automotive manufacturers have corroborated the importance of this technology by including ESC in their models. ESC comes as a standard feature in all vehicles from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and select models from Acura, Chrysler, Ford Motor Company (including Volvo), General Motors Corporation (including Saab), Infiniti, Lexus, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Toyota and Volkswagen. It is available as an option in other models, but, unfortunately, many auto salespeople don't really understand the new system and don't explain it well to their prospective customers.

That's sad, because, according to the World Health Organization, road crashes are the second leading cause of death among young people aged five to 29.  Another point of confusion is the fact that ESC is marketed under various trade names.  To see what trade name your favorite brand uses for this life-saving technology and to learn more about how it works, visit the Evergreen Safety Council's Web site.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is a member of the ESC Coalition Advisory Panel.

Hi Ho Silver is Safe!

Silver rules the road. According to the DuPont Automotive Color Popularity Report, an annual compilation of data on vehicle color trends, silver retains its top spot as the most popular car color. Year after year, car buyers show their love of silver. But now there might be another reason, aside from esthetics, for choosing silver as the color for your next car. A team of New Zealand epidemiologists has recently published a two-year study of accident data compiled in their homeland, and the results say occupants of silver cars are less likely to be involved in injury accidents than those riding in cars of another color. And while they seem steadfast that the results of the study are accurate, the most vexing thing is they can't figure out why.

Before you cry out, "People who buy silver cars must be safer drivers than those who buy red or purple cars!" you should know that the researchers made every effort to screen for anything that might skew survey results. Thus the results were adjusted for age, sex, alcohol level (three of our favorite adjustment factors), education, use of drugs, seatbelt use, driver's license status and even the average time spent behind the wheel. In addition to the human factors, the study also tried to screen out vehicle-related factors like age, engine size, and condition. And, finally, the research team tried to eliminate other wild cards such as weather, road conditions and light variables (daylight, dusk and nighttime.)

When all this was fed into the giant analysis computer, the British Medical Journal reported, silver cars were 60 percent less likely to be involved in a serious injury than the control group - white cars. Even when the adjustments were removed from the data, silver cars were still 50 percent less likely to be involved in a serious injury accident than white.

If silver is safest, what are the least safe? Dark earth tones. Brown vehicles were 110 percent more likely to be involved in an injury accident than white cars, when the adjustment factors were taken into account. Black was almost equally bad at 100 percent more likely and green cars were 80 percent more likely.

So if dark colors are unsafe, you might figure that bright colors like yellow and red would be safer because they are more likely to be seen. Well, yes and no. On unadjusted bases, both red and yellow vehicles were viewed as much more likely to be involved in injury accidents, but when adjusted for all the other variables, they actually registered as being safer than the control color of white.

So what does all this mean? Will driving a silver car instead of a brown one enhance your family's safety? Maybe. What we do know is that while silver cars are very popular now, red and other high-chroma colors are charging up the popularity charts. The question we have to ask is, what price fashion?

France-based Tom Ripley writes frequently about autos and the human condition. Lately, he has also taken to attending runway shows, at least until security turns him out.

Learn to Walk Again

According to the ancient joke, chickens cross the road with impunity, no matter what the reason. So why are so many Americans seemingly unable to do this safely? Pedestrian safety or, more correctly, the lack of it, is a major problem. Between 1975 and 2000 more than 175,000 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This year approximately 5,000 more pedestrians will die as they try to cross streets or walk by the side of a highway. In all, pedestrians account for about 12 percent of all motor vehicle accident fatalities each year.

Now, in an effort to find new ways to decrease pedestrian injuries and fatalities, the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works (DPW), is launching an interactive pedestrian safety information campaign called "Straight Talk - Smart Walk."

According to DPW Director Jim Noyes, "Our goal is to greatly enhance pedestrian safety by increasing public awareness of prudent pedestrian and motorist behaviors."

The program, funded by a $451,500 grant awarded by the California Office of Traffic Safety, will target the populations with the highest need for education in safe walking. Sadly, these groups include children and teens, with a particular emphasis on Latinos and African Americans. Statistics show that these members of the population are over-represented in the recorded injuries and fatalities.

A key element of the program is the amusingly titled "Walk This Way" road show, a three-dimensional walking obstacle course specially designed to simulate the common obstacles and safe-walking challenges encountered every day. No, the course won't be filled with whizzing cars, SUVs and semi-trailer trucks, but children will have an opportunity to learn safe walking practices when the road show visits schools and community organizations. All children who participate in the pedestrian safety program will become members of the Youth Street Safe Squad. They, in turn, will help educate their peers, parents and friends about safe walking practices.

As the campaign progresses, teens and seniors (another at-risk group) will become increasingly involved through targeted activities including a video game, art contest and a mentoring program. Since the program is targeted to help diverse groups, it will use materials that will reach individual populations using in-language materials (for instance, some in Spanish) and culturally appropriate media outlets.

One key way to avoid becoming a pedestrian victim is to be plainly seen by motorists. A motorist traveling at 60 miles per hour first sees a pedestrian traveling along a road in dark clothing from approximately 55 feet away. This gives the driver less than one second to react, but a driver traveling that fast needs over 260 feet to stop. For this reason, it is crucial that pedestrians stand out against the background (see chart).

The old message to "wear white at night" is not enough to guarantee the safety of pedestrians who are traveling in or near traffic at night. Simply wearing white or light-colored clothing does not provide enough information for motorists to recognize, locate, and react properly to pedestrians who are traveling on or near the road.

During the day, "fluorescent" colors like blaze orange, hot pink, and day-glo green are great. But, though fluorescent colors are noticeable during the day or in low light conditions, they are nearly worthless at night. Because of that, if you are walking on or near a road at night carry a flashlight or some other form of light. This will significantly increase one's odds of being seen. And being seen and not hurt is the goal of any pedestrian.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad writes frequently on motor vehicle safety issues.

A Simple Solution?

It seems like a very simple solution to a horrendous problem. Drunk drivers kill thousands of people each year, so why not put breath analysis technology inside each vehicle instead of in the hands of law enforcement? Each time you get in your car, you breathe into the device, and if your breath fingers you for overindulging in alcohol, your car won't start. Otherwise, you can turn the key and be on your way.

New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn) is one of the latest in a string of politicians and safety advocates who have proposed legislation to require this scenario. And who could object? If you're not drunk, you car starts just as it should and, except for the split second you spend exhaling into the apparatus, your life remains the same. If you are drunk, well, you could feel inconvenienced, but the system might well save your life as well as the lives of others.

But not everyone is sanguine about proposals like that of Ortiz. Civil libertarians object to the "guilty until you prove yourself innocent" nature of the plan, because applied literally it would require every driver in to prove his or her sobriety by passing an alcohol breath test every time they start their car anyplace, anytime and regardless of whether they drink responsibly -- or at all.

Manufacturers, car dealers and many consumers look askance at the proposal for simple dollars-and-cents reasons. The cost to install Breathalyzer-type devices has been estimated to be at least $1,000 per automobile, which, to many, seems an enormous fee to be levied on millions of citizens who drive responsibly, just because a few do not. Furthermore, some are adamant in their opposition.

"This asinine bill would place Big Brother in the car of every driver in the state of New York," John Doyle, executive director of The American Beverage Institute, said. "Assemblyman Ortiz's anti-alcohol agenda is going to cost millions of dollars to implement, and he is going to stick New York drivers with the bill. Meanwhile, the true core of the drunk-driving problem today will go largely ignored."

The American Beverage Institute is an association of restaurants whose credo asserts that they are "committed to the responsible serving of adult beverages." Certainly, they feel threatened by an ignition interlock system that could leave many patrons stranded in parking lots after just a social drink or two, because, as with the old seatbelt interlock, mechanical imperfections in the system seem inevitable. In fact, non-drinkers could well encounter non-start situations brought on by system failure, too.

The ABI and a scattering of safety experts insist that the real drunk-driving problem doesn't emanate from the social drinker. Instead, they point to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that shows the overwhelming majority of drunk-driving fatalities today are caused by a very small population of alcohol abusers who are very often repeat offenders. Address repeat offenders by keeping them off the streets and you will go a long way toward solving the problem, they say.

"Assemblyman Ortiz's galling legislation presumes that every New York mom driving her kids to soccer practice, every businessman driving to work, or every teenager driving to school may be guilty of drunk driving," Doyle said. "Ortiz will force them to not only prove their innocence but pay for the test -- clearly a costly violation of civil liberties that should be an outrage to New Yorkers."

Of course, the magnitude of the drunk-driving problem in the United States and the carnage it causes are another cause for outrage from us all. It is understandable that ignition interlock proposals would be put forward as a potential solution to this deadly situation, but one has to weigh whether the suggested cure is worth the disruptions it could cause.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini is known to sample a little vino now and then, but never before driving.