Helping Make Teens Streetwise

Can a video game save teenage lives?

According to research conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, a new game, Road Ready StreetWise, can do just that. The game was designed to increase teens' awareness and understanding of driving risks, and initial research has found teens that played the game were more likely to take steps to protect themselves from driving mishaps.

The online game, created by WildTangent, a leading online game publisher, is part of a Chrysler-sponsored initiative called the Road Ready Teens program. Its guidelines are embedded in the game, making learning seamless and part of the fun.

"On average, teens spend 55 minutes a day playing video games," said Alex St. John, CEO, WildTangent. "Using a video game that entertains and teaches teens makes good sense."

To ensure that the game achieved its safety goals, researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute conducted an initial evaluation of the game during its development. They found that the teens who played StreetWise said that the game helped them better understand the driving risks they face as young drivers and increased their awareness of these risks. A majority of these teens said they were more likely to take steps to protect themselves from driving risks and were more receptive to driving guidelines as a result of playing the game. Researchers also noted that teens enjoyed the game and agreed that a game format was a better way to teach driving risks than other communications such as videos, brochures, or inscribing the information on their nose ring.

The game has six missions, each progressively more difficult. Key challenges and experiences in the game include the impact of teen passengers in the vehicle, nighttime driving, distracted driving, and issues related to drinking and driving. Teens can challenge each other on the game and post their scores to national and local leader boards.

"Last year, 29 percent of 15- to 20-year-old drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes had been drinking. Twenty-four percent were intoxicated," said Wendy J. Hamilton, National President, MADD. "This is a tragedy no parent or friend should ever have to experience. It's up to all of us to give teens the proper guidance to keep them safe."

The issue is an important one since vehicle crashes are the number one killer of teens. In 2002, nearly 6,000 teens were killed, 300,000 were injured and more than 1.6 million were involved in vehicle crashes. According to research conducted by Chrysler Group earlier this year, driving safety is a top concern for six out of 10 parents when it comes to their teens.

"As a parent of teens, I understand how frightening these statistics are and the challenges that face young drivers," said Dr. Dieter Zetsche, President and CEO, Chrysler Group. "That is why we created a program to communicate with teens in their own language and give parents resources to help protect their kids. If all families would adopt graduated licensing guidelines like those reflected in the Road Ready Teens program, tens of thousands of teen crashes could be prevented each and every year."

The video game is part the official launch of the Road Ready Teens safety program, a Chrysler Group initiative to help parents ease their teens into driving while gradually exposing them to, and educating them about, the risks they face on the road. Road Ready Teens' materials, including StreetWise, a Parents' Guide and other resources are available at no cost on the program's Web site at  Road Ready Teens.

Villeperce, France-based Tom Ripley writes frequently on safety and humanitarian issues. He was once a teen but somehow outgrew it.

Danger 24/7

Over the course of your life, you've probably pulled some "all-nighters." Unfortunately not all work can be completed during "working hours," and that means that some of us, some of the time, study, work or even play for lengthy periods without sleep. In this era that demands ever-increasing productivity, it also seems as if this is happening more and more often.

To some, this is just the price we pay for more money, more elaborate lifestyles and "progress." But fatigue has another, much more ugly side -- it can be fatal. According to a company called Circadian Technologies, Inc., which specializes in helping companies deal with the new 24/7 world of commerce, several scientific studies have demonstrated that people who have been awake for 24 hours are impaired to the same level as someone with a blood-alcohol level of .10 percent, which is recognized as legally drunk in all states. The U.S. Department of Transportation has identified fatigue as the number one safety problem in transportation operations, with a cost in excess of $12 billion a year, and that fails to take into account the incalculable loss that occurs when an individual is killed in a "drowsy driving" traffic accident.

In an attempt to address the growing problem of driving while fatigued, the state of New Jersey recently enacted what has been labeled "Maggie's Law," a statute that makes drowsy driving a criminal offense. Under the new law, a sleep-deprived driver who causes an accident after being awake for more than 24 hours can be convicted of vehicular homicide. For both employees and employers alike, the law raises the specter of liability and even criminal culpability in cases in which drowsy employees who work long hours, high amounts of overtime, double-shifts, or even 24-hour on-call periods have accidents that cause bodily harm.

While to the 9-to-5 group, the problem seems an alien one, to the 24 million Americans who work in extended-hours jobs outside the hours of 7 am to 7 pm, the thrust of Maggie's Law is very real indeed. Circadian notes many extended-hours employees routinely stay awake for 24 hours on their first nightshift of the work week. Similarly, medical professionals and other emergency services personnel are often required to remain on-duty for 24-hour shifts. In emergency situations, utility linemen and technical support personnel work up to 48 hours without rest. These employees are confronted daily with the challenge of drowsy driving.

What they haven't been confronted with -- at least up to now -- is the answer to the challenge. But government and public interest groups are starting to warm to the issue.

The Minnesota Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (Minnesota NETS) recently noted, "Workplace safety efforts that ignore traffic issues are bypassing the leading cause of work-related death."

"Traffic injuries are the greatest fatality risk workers face," said Lisa Kons, coordinator of Minnesota NETS. "Employers can be a big influence on employees' driving behavior, on the job and off."

Certainly one area in which employers bear great responsibility (and potential liability) is required overtime that can result in fatigue. For example, the latest statistics from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry show that transportation incidents, mostly on highways, caused 46 percent of worker deaths during the five-year period from 1997-2001.

To address this, Drive Safely Work Week, sponsored nationally by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), is designed to help businesses create positive change in driver behavior. The key safety issues targeted by the campaign include buckling safety belts, aggressive driving, distracted driving, impaired driving, and the newly identified killer: "drowsy driving."

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad pulls the occasional all-nighter, but he tries not to drive when fatigued.

Unintended Consequences Could Hit Our Tires

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has mandated the installation of tire pressure monitoring systems in new vehicles beginning with the 2004 model year. The big question: will this "safety" measure actually result in diminished safety for the average motorists? Many tire manufacturers think so, and now they have a poll to back them up.

A new survey just released shows that the devices will cause American motorists to check their tire pressure less frequently, and that could result in a decline in safety. The survey, sponsored by the Rubber Manufacturers Association, found the frequency of U.S. motorists' checking their tire pressure will likely drop by nearly 25 percent in vehicles equipped with tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS). Even more troubling is the fact that motorists who exhibit the most responsible tire-pressure-checking behavior -- checking pressure at least once a month -- would likely show a significant decline in tire maintenance.

"The tire industry has been working for decades to encourage motorists to check their tire pressure regularly," said Donald B. Shea, RMA president and CEO. "But our survey shows that many drivers will reduce or stop checking their tire pressure because they may incorrectly believe that their tires are properly inflated when the tire pressure warning light is off."

The NHTSA tire pressure sensor regulation issued last year requires that tire pressure monitors warn motorists when tire pressure falls 25 or 30 percent below the vehicle manufacturer's recommended level. Tire makers insist this is not the best way to address a potential safety threat.

"The trigger point for a tire pressure monitoring system to warn a driver must be when the tire is overloaded for its inflation pressure," Shea said. "If tire pressure monitoring systems do not provide an adequate warning to motorists, and drivers become more complacent about proper tire care, the risk of tire failures may increase."

The big culprit in the issue is underinflation, which occurs naturally in auto tires in general use. When tires are underinflated it causes excessive heat buildup that, over time, can result in hidden damage that can cause tire failure.

One year ago, RMA petitioned NHTSA to adopt a new safety regulation requiring motor vehicle tires to have a "reserve inflation pressure," but NHTSA has not yet responded to the RMA petition. The petition included data on 100 vehicle/tire combinations, which when outfitted with the proposed monitoring systems, showed over 70 percent would fail to warn motorists before the vehicle's tires reach a point when the inflation pressure can no longer carry the load.

The tire industry association believes a reserve pressure rule will ensure that TPMS will provide drivers with a timely warning when tires are underinflated. Under the proposal, a vehicle's tires would be required to have a recommended inflation pressure that would be sufficient to carry the vehicle's maximum load even if the tire loses a significant amount of pressure. This would provide consumers with a vital safety net since only 14 percent of motorists properly check their inflation pressure, according to a February 2003 RMA survey. But auto manufacturers are expected to resist this proposal since it might force them to equip their vehicles with larger tires than might currently be required.

Echoing the tire industry's concerns about tire pressure monitoring systems, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) crash investigation of 15-passenger vans concluded that NHTSA's tire pressure monitoring standard "is insufficient to warn van drivers of potentially unsafe low pressures." NTSB is recommending that NHTSA adopt "more stringent detection standards" for low tire pressure than is currently mandated for large passenger vans.

One thing is certain: the controversy will be on-going. In August a U.S. Appeals Court decision overturned the TPMS rule and ordered the agency to craft a new one. The court ruled the agency inappropriately permitted certain types of tire pressure monitoring systems to be installed on new vehicles.

"We want to work with the government so the tire pressure monitoring systems promote safety," Shea said. "A tire pressure monitoring system can be an effective safety tool for motorists only if it provides a timely warning."

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

One More Thing

Many parents are diligent about preparing their vehicle for a summer vacation. They have the oil, fluids, belts and hoses checked; they make certain the tires are in good condition and inflated to the proper pressure, and that's the way it should be. But parents need to add at least one more item to their safety checklist before they take to the highways this summer: child safety seats. Fewer than one in six child seats is installed correctly, according to new data from AAA, and that's a frightening statistic.

"Parents make detailed plans to get the oil changed, stop home newspaper delivery, and even pack snacks before a big family car trip, yet many don't take five minutes to check that their young passengers will be safe," said Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, AAA director of traffic safety policy. "By adding this to their pre-trip 'checklist', parents can travel with the peace of mind that comes from knowing that their little ones are safe."

Those recommendations come in the wake of troubling new data from AAA that indicates, despite waves of publicity, parents are still doing a poor job of installing child safety seats. An analysis of more than 1,100 safety seat inspections in the new AAA Safety Seat Database showed that 85 percent of seats were installed or used incorrectly. The top five mistakes parents made were: not installing the seat tightly (64 percent of previously installed seats); harness straps not snug on child (28 percent); retainer clips not at armpit level (19 percent); locking clips used incorrectly (19 percent); and harness threaded incorrectly (11 percent).

Parents and other caregivers should make it their business to take five minutes to address these top five mistakes made in using child safety seats:
  1. Check that the safety seat is installed tightly. Grab the child seat where the seat belt threads through it and pull. It should not lift up more than one inch or move more than one inch from side to side. If it does, it is not tight enough. (The seat can be installed more tightly by using your body weight to depress it against the seat cushions when fastening the seat belt. Sticking your knee into the seat can work wonders.)

  2. Be sure the harness straps are pulled tightly to the child. The harness should be snug and lie flat on the child so that no slack can be pinched in the straps. While the straps needn't be so tight that they make the child uncomfortable, they need to be tight enough to restrain the child immediately in event of an accident.

  3. Position the retainer clip at the child's armpit level when the harness is snug. An improperly positioned retainer clip causes the harness straps to fit incorrectly.

  4. Check that the locking clip is in the right place and is threaded correctly. These locking or retainer clips can be tricky to install, but correct installation is crucial to your child's safety. Child safety seat manuals and car owner's manuals give specific information about using retainer clips. For additional help, parents should contact the child seat manufacturer or attend a child safety seat check.

  5. Harness straps must not be twisted and should be routed through the appropriate slots for the direction that the seat is facing. Rear-facing seats should have the straps at or below the child's shoulders; forward-facing seats should have the straps at or above the child's shoulders.

  6. When in doubt, don't just assume everything will be okay. Answers to your child seat questions are out there from the child seat manufacturers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and from AAA. For more information on child safety seats and help finding a local child seat check, go to the AAA Public Affairs Web site, then select "For Kids' Sake."

Bad Roads Can Kill

In the last decade, the issues of bad vehicles and bad driving have received serious press attention, but another safety factor seems to have received short shrift. Statistics prove bad roads can kill, and the numbers are sobering. Between 1998 and 2001 more than 24,000 Americans died in car crashes in which neither driver error nor impairment were cited as factors. It strongly suggests that roads themselves contributed to the crashes, and that opinion is backed up by a new survey.

Intersections are danger zones, as an analysis of crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by Reader's Digest magazine affirmed. More than one-third of the deaths in which no driver error nor impairment were cited occurred at intersections. Confusing lanes, blind spots, and inadequate signage are factors that contribute to crashes... and deaths.

According to the analysis, when the road was the major contributing factor in a crash, the majority of these crashes occurred at intersections (35 percent) and in dark conditions (31.7 percent). Overall, 44 percent of all crashes occur at intersections. Baby-boomers and older drivers tend to be the most vulnerable in driving on poorly illuminated roads and busy intersections because of their diminished vision and slower reaction times. In fact, by 2020 there will be more than 40 million licensed drivers over the age of 65, if they live that long.

To ensure these problems are addressed and adequate funding is provided by Congress to make America's roads safer, AAA has developed a list of 10 ways the government can improve roads and intersections. "We have a tremendous opportunity to prevent crashes if we look at improving our roads," said Bella Dinh-Zarr, Ph.D., AAA national director of traffic safety policy. "Simple changes such as larger signs, protected turn lanes, and better lighting are especially helpful to us as we age, but in fact, these improvements help make the roads safer for people of all ages."

This fall, Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the surface transportation funding act, which allocates money for roads, public transportation, as well as traffic safety programs. AAA will focus Congress' attention on its "10 Ways to Make Road Safer," which is based on real-world data from AAA Michigan's intersection safety program called the Road Improvement Demonstration Project as well as guidelines from the Federal Highway Administration.

What are those 10 ways?
  1. SIGNS: Larger, simpler and better-placed signs with reflective materials plus the elimination of confusing and multiple signs.

  2. CROSSWALKS: Reflective pavement markings to increase visibility, countdown signals, longer walk times, easier to reach and larger buttons and plaques to help pedestrians understand signals. Pedestrian refuge islands at large intersections also help.

  3. LEFT-TURN LANES: Dedicated, protected left-turn lanes and "arrow" signals, preferably "off-set." Off-set left-turn lanes improve visibility because the car coming from the opposite direction doesn't block the driver's line of sight.

  4. STOP SIGNS: The minimum size of stop signs, regardless of speed, should be 30 inches. Reflectivity of stop signs must be maintained. STOP AHEAD signs and rumble strips are useful in situations where drivers appear not be noticing the stop signs.

  5. LIGHTING: Better lighting overall. Eyesight begins to worsen at age 40. By age 60, a driver needs three times more light to see as at age 16.

  6. PAVEMENT MARKINGS: Brighter road markings, edge markings and other pavement markings should be reflective so drivers can see curbs, lanes and intersections/crosswalks more easily.

  7. TRAFFIC SIGNALS: Larger traffic signal heads and back plates to provide more contrast. "All red" periods for traffic signals allow for a margin of error.

  8. FREEWAY EXITS & ENTRANCES: Large and clearer signs well in advance of ramps would prevent vehicles from the dangerous mistake of going the wrong way on a highway.

  9. WORK ZONES: Large, bright, well-maintained and carefully placed work zone devices (barrels, cones, etc.) including flashing arrow panels to help drivers prepare for lane closures.

  10. CHANGEABLE MESSAGE SIGNS: Changeable message signs to inform drivers of new road conditions and situations. Messages should be easily understood phrases and abbreviations and not exceed two "panels."

    "We have launched a nationwide initiative called 'Lifelong Safe Mobility' and it will address three important elements of traffic safety: the road, the vehicle, and the driver," said Dinh-Zarr. "Because the crash rates for older drivers will continue to climb because existing road hazards and aging do not mix well, targeting road improvements makes sound safety sense."

    Jack R. Nerad is managing editor of Driving Today and the co-host of the syndicated radio program "America on the Road."