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.

An Electronic Lifesaver

Early reports from Europe suggested it, and now tests here in America confirm it -- Electronic Stability Control (ESC) saves lives. A newly published research study by the University of Iowa has concluded that drivers of vehicles equipped with ESC technology increase their ability to maintain control of their vehicles in life threatening situations by 34%. The research study delivered what many called groundbreaking evidence supporting the effectiveness of computer-operated electronic stability control.

The study was commissioned by Robert Bosch Corporation in conjunction with the Electronic Stability Control Coalition and the University of Iowa, and it was implemented by employing the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), which is owned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). During the study, researchers at the University of Iowa were able to study drivers during true-to-life critical driving scenarios that would normally lead to a loss of control.

"This research, the first hi-fidelity simulator-based analysis of driver response to vehicles with and without Electronic Stability Control, significantly changes the automotive safety landscape," said University of Iowa researcher Yiannis E. Papelis, Ph.D., one of the leading researchers on the study. "Using the National Advanced Driving Simulator allowed us to observe human behavior and measure drivers' reactions in conditions that would be too dangerous to conduct in real life. Compellingly, the results found ESC can reduce the risk of losing control by as much as 88 percent, which equates to an increase of 34 percent in the number of drivers who maintained control of their vehicles with the ESC system activated."

Previous international observational studies from Mercedes-Benz and Toyota have shown that ESC could help prevent up to 50 percent of single-vehicle crashes. The University of Iowa's study compared driver performance during three selected loss-of-control scenarios -- lane departure, curve departure and wind gust -- between two vehicles equipped with an ESC system and the same vehicles with the system off. Researchers chose the scenarios from the well-known industry accident classifications in the crash avoidance document "44 Crashes." The results show that vehicles equipped with ESC systems provide a significant safety benefit.

"ESC is a proven active safety technology that can help a driver maintain control of the vehicle and significantly reduces the danger of skidding and rollover accidents," said Wolfgang Drees, member of the board of management, Robert Bosch GmbH. "The results of this study reflect similar data from international observational studies that ESC does in fact help to save lives."

First manufactured by Bosch in 1995, ESC [or electronic stability program (ESP) as it is called by Bosch] is another instance of the use of computers in increasing auto safety, building upon the success of antilock brakes. Bosch, one of several makers of the technology, has produced more that 10 million ESP systems worldwide and estimates approximately six percent of U.S. vehicles are equipped with ESP today. In Europe, where the systems have received greater publicity and fitments by car manufacturers, the percentage of new vehicles with the technology is much greater.

A member of the Electronic Stability Control Coalition advisory board, Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad writes frequently about safety issues.

Danger at a Crossroads

Many drivers feel most endangered when traveling at high-speed traffic on Interstate highways, but they might be interested to learn the most dangerous place on the road might just be the busy corner in their own hometown. If that nearby intersection is regulated by traffic signals, odds are that it could be the site of a serious accident because thousands of drivers each day disobey traffic signals, failing to stop at red lights, and the toll of this carelessness is staggering.

Each year red light running crashes result in nearly 1,000 deaths and about 90,000 injuries nationally. And, sadly, things are getting worse. Between 1992 and 1998 red light crashes increased at an alarming 18 percent. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 96 percent of drivers fear being hit by a red light runner upon entering an intersection, yet 55.8 percent admit to running red lights.

The leading excuse cited by the red light runners is "being in a hurry!" This sense of entitlement -- my time is more valuable than your safety -- combined with a low expectation of being caught is responsible for rampant disrespect for the rules of the road.

But some believe there is an answer to this growing problem. They advocate the use of automatic cameras that will catch red light runners in the act and result in their being fined. Some say that red light cameras aren?t accurate or, worse yet, are a compromise of our Constitutional rights as Americans. But the California Board of Audits has completed its review of red light camera programs in California, finding the programs to be effective in reducing red light running crashes.

"Statewide collision data indicates a 10 percent drop in accidents caused by motorists running red lights in areas with red light cameras compared to no change in the number of accidents in other areas," the report says. The report also notes that red light running crashes have increased 14 percent in San Diego when the experimental camera program was suspended.

Other studies of safety effectiveness in specific localities have also shown dramatic results. A recent audit of the San Diego program found that the number of crashes caused by motorists who run red lights dropped 44 percent at intersections with red light cameras. The red light camera program in Oxnard, California, has resulted in a 46 percent reduction in injury causing crashes involving signal or sign violations.

"Aggressive driving is not a right, and red light cameras present no threat of any sort to safe drivers," said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running. "But, getting people to change their behavior requires consistent enforcement. With photo enforcement, we can reverse the trend toward this irresponsible behavior."

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini is always in a hurry, but he always manages to stop for red lights and for lunch.

Impaired Driving Roadblocks

The headline was hard to ignore: "California Puts the Brakes on Impaired Driving; More than 310 Agencies Take Part in Sobriety Checks in December." And of course the goal was laudable. Preventing drunk or otherwise impaired drivers from taking innocent lives is worth some time, inconvenience, and perhaps even a little kink in our constitutional rights. But just as the enforcement of drunk drivers has been getting stiffer and just as the establishment of "sobriety checkpoints" has become more frequent, some are claiming that such roadblocks are ineffective and target the wrong people.

"The nation is on the wrong track in its efforts to combat drunk driving. PR campaigns and roadblocks -- the centerpiece of the nation's war on drunk driving -- harass and intimidate responsible adults while failing to target truly drunk drivers," so said several traffic safety experts cited in a new report by the American Beverage Institute (ABI), a restaurant trade association that seeks the responsible consumption of "adult beverages."

According to ABI, instead of prompting enforcement that goes after the seriously drunk driver with extremely high blood alcohol content, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continue to promote the use of roadblocks that "harass responsible adults who drive after drinking adult beverages in moderation." Further, the ABI asserts the MADD/NHTSA strategy that uses checkpoints as a key weapon against impaired driving isn't working.

Statistics might back up the lobbying group in its claim. For nearly a decade and a half, the anti-impairment forces seemed to be gaining serious ground in the war against drunken driving, but at some point in the mid-1990's, the progress stopped and then took a turn for the worse. Whether the increase in sobriety checkpoints at the expense of other forms of enforcement contributed to the reversal is an open question, but it is a question worth asking.

The point is not to ignore the problem of impaired driving. It is a very real one that costs lives each and every day. The point is: how can limited law enforcement resources be best used to combat this serious public health problem? Critics of sobriety checkpoints say they are effective at raising public awareness of the issue of impaired driving, and they might even prevent some social drinkers from having a drink or two (or three) and then getting behind the wheel, but they won't keep the serious drinker from swigging way to much alcohol and then attempting to drive. And the big-time drinkers, some experts will tell you, are the ones really behind the alarming rise in impaired driving traffic deaths.

"Alcohol-related occupant fatalities [are] up a total of three percent, and it's all coming out of the high-BAC (blood alcohol content) [drivers]," Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Director of NHTSA's Impaired Driving and Occupant Protection Division has been quoted as saying. "Clearly, the implication here is that the usual stuff isn't working. We did something right back in the late 80s, early 90s, and we're not managing to do that now."

Instead of establishing checkpoints that use a number of patrolmen, some safety experts advocate a return to more conventional highway patrols in which wide-ranging officers stay on the lookout for seriously impaired drivers in a much broader sweep through communities. While no one is advocating driving after drinking -- and remember even a few social drinks can seriously impede your ability to control a vehicle properly -- there is some honest disagreement on how best to keep dangerous drivers off the road.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad frequently writes and lectures about impaired driving.

Commercial Vehicles and You

Sometimes stereotypes are accurate, but often they are far, far off the mark, and that is certainly the case when it comes to long-haul truckers. It seems they are almost invariably depicted in the media as drawling, dimwitted dropouts, but the fact is that the vast majority of big-rig drivers are well-educated, totally professional and -- bar none -- the most courteous and thoughtful drivers on the road.

Still big-rig truckers often get bum-rapped for being slow, lane hogs who can't get out of their own way. But most of that perception is in the minds of drivers who don't understand the limitations of semi-trailer trucks, and, unfortunately, that lack of understanding costs precious lives each year.

Now, in an effort to foster a better awareness of how trucks operate, Roadway Express and the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSP) have partnered to create an educational video entitled, "Sharing the Road Safely with Commercial Vehicles." The video is intended to provide highway safety facts to passenger-car drivers, who have been found to be the cause of the vast majority of accidents between cars and trucks.

A key challenge to sharing the road successfully is the impression most passenger car drivers seem to have that big rigs can stop, accelerate, and maneuver like cars. The fact is, they can't. Big rigs require more time to get up to cruising speed, more time to stop, and more space to turn than typical passenger cars. It shouldn't take a physics professor to understand that. But most car-truck accidents occur because passenger car drivers fail to stay in their lane, run off the road, drive too fast for the conditions, fail to obey signs or signals, don't yield to the right of way or are simply not paying attention. Very often cars flit around trucks like bees around a flower, not realizing that trucks have big blind spots to either side, behind and even in front.

The new safety video shares the following tips for passenger car drivers:

Pass trucks quickly and don't linger in blind spots. Those blind spots (areas where truck drivers can't see you in their mirrors) are larger than you might guess, especially directly behind and on the right (passenger) side of the truck.

Allow plenty of room for trucks entering the highway or stopping. Remember trucks can't accelerate or stop as quickly as cars, so don't pull in front of them until you can see both headlights in your rearview mirror.

In construction zones, slow down, increase your following , and let other drivers merge. Don't try to be the last one to zoom in front of the truck entering a construction zone, because if you have misjudged the distance the truck can't stop short to assist you.

Keep alert and stay free of distractions. Driving a vehicle requires your full attention, and that is never truer than when sharing a highway with heavy trucks.

Drive in accordance with the conditions. Slow down and turn your headlights on if the weather is bad or visibility is reduced, because trucks can't avoid you if they can't see you.

Move over for stopped and oncoming safety vehicles.

Don't drink and drive.

Buckle up.

Copies of "Sharing the Road Safely with Commercial Vehicles" will be distributed to law enforcement agencies to use in drivers' education programs as well as to Roadway Express drivers who make presentations to the public. Roadway Express and OSP have worked together for more than six years to communicate the "share the road" message to the public.

Roadway Express drivers also work with the Ohio State Highway Patrol to train every cadet class in the safe and proper way for troopers to stop commercial vehicles. In 2001, the partners developed their first joint-effort video: "How to Safely Stop a Commercial Vehicle," which was intended to increase the safety of law enforcement officers when pulling over commercial vehicles.

"America on the Road" co-host Jack R. Nerad is proud to have thousands of long-haul and short-route truckers among his listeners.