Teens Distracted?

As if teenagers don't have enough to distract them, what with food, music, grooming and, oh, yes, the opposite sex, now they have the cellular telephone as well. Sadly, teenagers don't have a very good record of staying focused -- just ask any high school teacher -- so getting them to stay focused behind the wheel is a daunting task.

Recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) research shows that teen drivers are four times more likely to be involved in a distraction-related collision than any other age group. In addition, a recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study demonstrated that drivers under the age of 20 are most susceptible to driving distractions.

Unfortunately, many teen drivers don't understand the dangers of driving while distracted. While most new drivers today can describe the dangers of speeding or driving drunk, few comprehend the one contributing factor that causes the most collisions: driver distractions. A recent NHTSA research study shows that driver distractions contribute to one in four automobile collisions. Further, traffic collisions are the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 20.

Clearly, distracted driving is a danger to teens, and the increasing prevalence of cell phones is not making it any better. To help address this problem Cingular Wireless, using technical assistance provided by the NHTSA, created "Be Sensible: Don't drive yourself to distraction, a teen driving program including a video, detailed educator's guide, educational wall poster and classroom activities to help teenage students overcome driver distraction." In putting the program together, Cingular sought the counsel of the nation's top driver education advisors including NHTSA, the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association (ADTSEA) and the Driving School Association of the Americas (DSAA). Recently, Maryland became the first state to adopt the program for sanctioned use. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration will distribute Cingular's driving curriculum to its Rookie Driver driving school owners and instructors.

In the short (9-minute) video, teens are warned about everyday distractions like eating, talking with friends, applying makeup, adjusting the radio, and, of course, speaking on a cell phone. Without preaching, the video suggests that teen drivers drive safely and responsibly, while helping them eliminate or manage distractions by giving common-sense advice such as letting a cell phone call go to voice mail or asking a passenger to change the radio station. The video even warns teenagers about the possible distractions that can be caused by children or pets. It also discusses out-of-the-car distractions, including friends in other vehicles, billboards and hotties walking down the street.

The "Be Sensible: Don't drive yourself to distraction" program is designed for high school students in health, safety and driver's education classes. All program materials are currently available for delivery to teachers at no charge by Cingular Wireless through the Video Placement Worldwide (VPW) Web site. It's something your kids' teachers might want to learn about.

Jack R. Nerad is the managing editor of Driving Today and the father of three daughters who are already in love with cellular telephones.

Psychology of Aggression

In the aftermath of the September 11th tragedy, the nation adopted a posture of compassion and tolerance that recalled an earlier, simpler time. But now that more than a year has passed and the country has returned to "normal," a leading behavioral scientist warns motorists to expect an increase in aggressive driving as the widespread compassion seen after the September 11th terrorist attacks becomes a relic of the past.

"Traumatic loss, such as we experienced on September 11, makes us humanize one another," Steven Stosny, Ph.D., director of CompassionPower and a behavioral specialist, said. "We need to comfort and be comforted. When we look for human connection, we're not aggressive; the antidote to aggression is compassion. Unfortunately, this has been short-lived. The problems we're seeing now on our roads and highways are a reflection of a wider community problem of resentment and anger."

What constitutes "aggressive driving?" According to safety experts, the term includes behaviors like speeding, running red lights and stop signs, tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic to gain position, using the shoulder of the road instead of waiting in backed-up traffic and "sweeping," or moving across more than one lane of traffic without pausing.

All these actions are most often unsafe, yet thousands seem compelled to drive in this style, threatening others on the highway. Stosny thinks that anger and frustration are key reasons.

"We get the most angry when we feel the most powerless," he said. "Resentful and angry people make themselves even more powerless by blaming their emotions on traffic, the design of the highway and other drivers. The more we focus on what we can't control, such as heavy traffic, the more powerless we feel, and the more we take this feeling out on other drivers."

Why do these feelings manifest themselves on the road? That's easy, replies the expert: on the road, nobody knows who we are.

"Arenas where aggression can be played out are school, home, work, or the highway," Stosny said. "It's most likely to be played out in driving because we don't know the other drivers. We're anonymous."

Interestingly, psychological factors are acerbated by physiological changes associated with anger that also encourage aggressive driving.

"Anger dilates the eyes, distorts depth perception and gives us better peripheral vision," Stosny added. "That's why so many aggressive driving behaviors include tailgating and cutting off other drivers, because aggressive drivers misjudge distances."

Stosny suggests that motorists confronted with aggressive drivers get out of their way, avoid eye contact, ignore rude gestures and resist the temptation to "teach them a lesson." Don't let a jerk make you a jerk, he recommends. Motorists also should avoid tailgating and blocking the passing lane, especially if they are driving more slowly than most of the traffic. He recommends that motorists pull over and dial 911 on their cell phones to report aggressive drivers.

Stosny conducts anger regulation classes to help aggressive drivers understand their behavior behind the wheel and empower themselves by ensuring the safety of every child and adult in every car they see. He is a member of the Smooth Operator Coalition -- a group of officials, government agencies and private sector partners in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. One goal of the program is to warn people of the seriousness of the aggressive driving problem and the steps that can be taken to reduce aggressive driving.

A student of the human condition who is very familiar with aggression, Tom Ripley writes about the automotive world from his home in Villeperce, France.

Saving Lives One at a Time

You don't know the name Nils Bohlin, but Nils Bohlin has saved more than a million people from sudden death in the last half century. His achievement? The creation of a feature found in every vehicle manufactured today, 43 years after its invention: the three-point safety belt.

A retired Volvo safety engineer, Bohlin was among 16 inventors inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, this year. More than 168 inventors have been immortalized in the NIHF during the past 30 yea rs -- individuals whose creations have shaped the way in which we live, such as Eli Whitney for the cotton gin and Orville and Wilbur Wright for the airplane, among others.

There is no doubt that Bohlin's invention has been a significant one in t he annals of automotive safety. According to the Volvo Car Corporation Traffic Accident Research Team, the three-point safety belt reduces the risk of injury or death in automobile accidents by 75 percent. It is believed to have saved as many as one mi ll ion lives since its development.

Bohlin began his career in engineering in the mid-1950s in the Swedish aviation industry, designing efficient ejector seats. At the time, the few safety belts installed in cars were anchored behind the car seat s a nd strapped across the body with the buckle placed over the abdomen. Unfortunately in high-speed crashes, this design allowed the body to move, and with the awkward position of the buckle, the belt itself could cause injury to body organs.

In 195 8, Volvo recruited Bohlin as the company's first dedicated safety engineer, and shortly thereafter, he translated his ideas into reality. Based on his experience designing ejector seats, the Swedish engineer understood the limitations of restraint de vices and turned his attention to restraining the human body as safely as possible under extreme movements.

"I realized both the upper and lower body must be held securely in place with one strap across the chest and one across the hips," he said. "T he belt also needed an immovable anchorage point for the buckle as far down beside the occupant's hip, so it could hold the body properly during a collision. It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, effective and could be put on conven iently with one hand."

Just a year after hiring Bohlin, Volvo introduced the patented three-point safety belt in European markets. By the mid-1960s, its availability and use became widespread in the United States as well. Today, nearly 70 percent of Americans buckle up and 49 states have safety belt laws. One hundred percent utilization of seat belts is the goal set by most safety organizations and lawmakers.

Unfortunately, Bohlin, who currently resides in Sweden, was unable to at tend th e Hall of Fame ceremony, but his sons, Gunnar and Hakan Ornmark, accepted the award on his behalf. And Bohlin should accept the gratitude of millions of drivers and passengers whose lives have been enhanced by his invention.

Based in Vill eperce, France, Tom Ripley is always looking for ways to make life safer for himself and those he loves.

Getting MADD All Over Again

America's effort to curb deaths caused by drunk or drug-impaired drivers has become a crusade for activists, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), but some have asked if the crusade has stalled. Statistics reinforce that view. Between 1980, the year MADD was founded, and 1994, alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped by a dramatic 43 percent. Many credit MADD with contributing mightily to that rapid decline, since the organization did so much to sear the issue into the public consciousness. Since then, however, the annual drunk driving death toll has stalled at approximately 16,000 to 17,000. In 2000, alcohol-related traffic deaths jumped by the largest percentage on record, and preliminary reports of last year's data show virtually no change in crashes involving alcohol, which now represent 40 percent of total highway fatalities.

With all this as background, MADD has unveiled a new eight-point action plan to jumpstart the war against what it calls "the most frequently committed violent crime in the nation, drunk driving."

"The good news is that since 1980, an estimated 200,000 alcohol-related traffic deaths have been prevented," said MADD National President Millie I. Webb. "But, the bad news is that since 1994 the war on drunk driving has flat-lined. We are losing ground and losing lives."

What is most frustrating to many of the anti-drunk-driving crusaders is that so much progress was followed by a period in which no progress seems to have been made at all.

"The light that we thought we saw at the end of the tunnel appears to be the headlights of an oncoming crash caused by public and political complacency," added Webb. "The complacent plateau our nation has been riding since 1994 is unacceptable."

To combat what it sees as complacency, MADD convened a National Impaired Driving Summit in January to bring together leading experts to identify the most effective countermeasures to significantly cut alcohol-related traffic deaths and injuries. Based on those discussions, MADD now is urging the nation to embrace the following top eight actions to sharply reduce alcohol-impaired driving:
  1. Resuscitate the nation's efforts to prevent impaired driving by re-igniting public passion and calling on the citizens and the nation's leaders to "Get MADD All Over Again."

  2. Increase DWI/DUI enforcement, especially the use of frequent, highly publicized sobriety checkpoints, which have been proven one of the most effective weapons in the war on drunk driving.

  3. Enact primary enforcement seat belt laws in all states because seat belts are the best defense against impaired drivers. MADD recommends the federal government give states a brief incentive period, followed by withholding federal highway funds from states that do not enact primary belt laws.

  4. Enact tougher, more comprehensive sanctions geared toward higher-risk drivers -- repeat offenders, drivers with high blood-alcohol levels, and DWI/DUI offenders driving with suspended licenses.

  5. Develop a dedicated National Traffic Safety Fund to support ongoing and new priority traffic safety programs.

  6. Reduce underage drinking -- the No. 1 youth drug problem - through improving minimum drinking age laws, adopting tougher alcohol advertising standards and increasing enforcement and awareness of laws such as "zero tolerance drinking-driving" and sales to minors.

  7. Increase beer excise taxes to equal the current excise tax on distilled spirits. Higher beer taxes are associated with lower rates of traffic fatalities and youth alcohol consumption.

  8. Reinvigorate court-monitoring programs to identify shortcomings in the judicial system and produce higher conviction rates and stiffer sentences for offenders. "In this new era of homeland security, we cannot forgo the domestic fight against drunk driving," Webb said. "If the estimated 300 Americans who died last week and the 300 that will likely die this week in alcohol-related crashes suddenly and violently perished all at once, the national crisis that threatens us every day would be clear. [Yet] one by one Americans are needlessly falling through dangerous gaps in the drunk driver control system in nearly every state and community. This tragic problem is 100 percent preventable."

    Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on safety issues and the automobile industry for Driving Today and other publications.

A Real Pain in the Neck

It has become a cliché. Somebody is hit from behind, and they immediately begin clutching their neck. "Call me a lawyer!" they shout. "Call me a lawyer!"

Sadly, this cliché is based on a truth that hurts us all right in the wallet. Each year there are nearly two million rear-impact vehicle crashes, and insurance industry data show that more than 20 percent of drivers in rear-impact crashes report neck injuries. That's 400,000 auto-related neck injuries per year. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), neck injuries cost the auto insurance industry, and ultimately consumers, more than $7 billion a year.

There is a solution. IIHS' own technical studies have shown properly-positioned head restraints can significantly reduce such injuries, but the problem is most people spend little or no time in their vehicles positioning the head restraints. A new survey from Progressive Insurance, one of the nation's top insurance groups, has found that only 14 percent of drivers know the optimal positioning of a head restraint. Further, 18 percent of drivers think all vehicles come with head restraints already properly positioned.

Each year auto companies spend millions of dollars putting head restraints into vehicles only to have the vast majority of people ignore them as if they were a Britney Spears movie. As part of its ongoing market research, Progressive conducted the survey of 22,600 drivers whose primary vehicle has adjustable head restraints in an effort to understand their perceptions and use of head restraints. The survey results show that 40 percent of drivers do not adjust their head restraint when driving a newly purchased vehicle, and 57 percent don't adjust them even after someone else has driven their vehicle. In addition, 13 percent of drivers "have given no thought" to how high their head restraint should be to protect them from neck injury.

"Fixing the position of your head restraint can help reduce your chances of a neck injury in a rear-impact crash, but the survey tells us that few people are doing it," said John Bindseil, medical claims manager for Progressive. "More than one-third of your auto insurance premium goes to coverages that pay for injuries caused by a car crash, including neck injuries. People should know that proper head restraint adjustment cannot only help protect them from injury, but can also help lower the medical costs associated with accidents -- which can ultimately help keep the cost of insurance down for all consumers."

The optimal head restraint position is close to the back of the head of a seated occupant -- no more than two and a half inches from the back of the head. The top of the head restraint should ideally be as high as the top of the occupant's head and no lower than two and a half inches below the top of the head.

"It's also important to note that some adjustable head restraints cannot be locked into place or positioned properly for all drivers," said Bindseil. "In these cases, drivers should do what they can to protect themselves, such as checking head restraint positioning frequently or adjusting their seat backs.

Later this year, the IIHS will release the results of a study that looks at improved head restraint designs and their ability to minimize the occurrence of neck injuries in rear-impact crashes.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini has frequently been accused of being a pain in the neck, especially by his wife.