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.

Where Crashes Occur

Angela Carter once wrote "Home is where the heart is," and Thomas Wolfe penned the novel You Can't Go Home Again. But who said that most auto accidents occur close to home?

The answer is Progressive Insurance, in a survey more than 11,000 people who reported a crash in 2001. As part of an ongoing claims satisfaction survey process, Progressive asked all 11,000 crash victims how far from home they were when their accident occurred, and the results confirmed the old adage that most accidents occur at home. Interestingly enough, this data is not typically gathered by law enforcement or insurance companies.

The survey found that 52 percent of reported crashes occurred five miles or less from home and a whopping 77 percent occurred 15 miles or less from home. This, of course, should be intuitive since most people do the great majority of their driving within a close proximity of their homes, but many drivers seem more concerned about safety issues when embarking on a long, cross-country trip than when heading to the grocery store. For insurance companies, the information has a different application.

"Consumers may wonder why where they live is so important to an auto insurance company," said Alex Ho, consumer brand director, Progressive. "Most people drive most of their miles close to home and understanding the risks associated with where someone drives helps insurance companies develop more accurate rates."

When you're headed out to pick up the kids from school or buy a hammer at the hardware store, just remember that a full 23 percent of reported accidents (nearly one-quarter) occurred within one mile of home. Another 29 percent occurred two to five miles from home, while just 17 percent of accidents occurred more than 20 miles from home. And, tellingly, only one percent of reported accidents took place 50 miles or more from home. For those who look at life from a Vegas odds point of view, accidents are more than twice as likely to take place one mile from home compared to 20 miles from home.

The region with the highest percentage of reported accidents occurring less than five miles from home was the heavily populated Northeast, followed by the Midwest, West, Great Plains, Gulf, and Mid Atlantic. The region with the highest percentage (21 percent) of reported accidents that occurred 21 miles or more from home was the Great Plains, where drivers will frequently drive that far just to reach the nearest feed store, while the Northeast had the lowest percentage (14 percent).

Auto insurance companies examine claims their customers have had in a geographic area, along with other information, to help determine the cost of insurance. Companies typically consider factors such as how often crashes and thefts occur, and the cost of repairs and medical treatments in the area. Each company's claims experience can vary significantly, which is why the cost of auto insurance can vary widely from company to company.

"We want consumers to know exactly how their rates are determined so they can make more informed insurance decisions," said Ho.

An informed decision you can make is to drive carefully whether you're venturing out of a transcontinental journey, or just running out for a loaf of bread.

Born in Boston, Tom Ripley has ventured far from home, now residing in Villeperce, France, where he reports on human frailties and automotive issues.

Sharing the Road

Many drivers have had this nightmare: A huge semi-trailer truck is bearing down on them. Smoke is streaming from its exhaust pipe; its airhorns are blaring, and, though you in your little car stand right in its way... it's not going to stop!

Many motorists look at big-rig trucks as the 800-pound gorillas of the road -- they do what they want to do -- but that is far from an accurate picture. Semi-trailer trucks and other trucks that criss-cross our highways and byways are piloted by professional drivers who pride themselves on their hard-won driving skill and on their courtesy. In fact, if you spend a lot of time driving from state-to-state and take the time to observe the behavior of big-rig truck drivers, you will quickly determine that they are the best and most courteous drivers on the road.

So where did the aforementioned nightmare about big-rig trucks originate? Like most myths, it came from a lack of understanding -- in this case, a lack of understanding about what big-rig truckers are up against.

Imagine for minute driving with a paper bag over your inside rear view mirror. Then imagine you are at the wheel of a vehicle that is nearly as big as a boxcar and is articulated, meaning the rear portion and the front portion don't turn as one. This gives you some idea of what it is like to be a big-rig driver.

With all this in mind, think of the challenge it must be to change lanes guided only by your side mirrors. Big trucks rarely have rear view mirrors because the trailer would block the view. As a result, truck drivers cannot easily see what is directly behind their vehicle. While you might have some sense of this, you probably don't know that this blind spot extends at least 30 feet behind the trailer.

"The truck driver's view of the road is limited," said Guy Walenga, engineering department manager for U.S. commercial operations at Bridgestone/Firestone, who works closely with the trucking industry. "There are places in front, behind, and on both sides of a big semi truck where the driver may not be able to see you at all."

The blind spot alongside the truck extends out several lanes on each side of the vehicle. If you're driving in one of these areas, and the truck has to change lanes, it may not be possible to see you. Because of this, zipping into these blindspots and staying there, even though the lane ahead is clear, can be dangerous. The important thing is not just to observe what the big rig driver is doing, but also anticipate what the big rig driver might do, which could include moving into your lane.

The same holds true at an intersection, because trucks are not as maneuverable as cars. When a truck makes a sharp turn, the driver must swing wide. Because the driver's mirror is fixed to the tractor, during a turn the driver often can't see anything on the right side of the truck, so it's very risky to pull alongside of a truck turning right even though it seems the lane is clear.

Even the area right in front of a big rig truck can include a blind spot. Can you see a small object directly in front of your front bumper? Neither can a truck, but with a truck the invisible area can extend up to four car lengths. Because of this, it is dangerous to pass a semi and then cut in front of it.

"Stay out of these blind spots as much as possible," Bridgestone/Firestone's Walenga warned. "If you must enter a blind spot, try to make sure you're only briefly passing through it to get to a more visible and much safer location. Remember, if you can't see the truck's side mirrors, there's no way the truck driver can see you."

The bottom line: most truck drivers have excellent skills and exhibit courteous behavior. Understanding the special circumstances they encounter behind the wheel can help make you a much safer driver.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini has a great deal of respect for America's over-the-road truck drivers.

Has The War on Drunk Driving Stalled?

If there were a disease that suddenly struck 15,000 Americans a year dead on the spot, you can bet there would be a public outcry to do something about it. Politicians would get on the bandwagon, millions of dollars would be expended for research, and a desperate, publicly supported search would get underway to find a cure.

This year 15,000 Americans will suddenly die as a result of one of the nation's biggest public health problems. The big question is: does this nation and its leaders have the will to deal with the problem? Further, will solutions that are already known and understood be implemented with the force that is necessary to make a difference?

The public health problem to which we allude is, of course, drunk driving. It is a particularly cruel problem because it strikes randomly and without warning. Death as a result of drunk driving can happen to any of us virtually any time we are on the road as a driver, passenger, motorcyclist, bicyclist or even pedestrian. It strikes the young, the old, and all of us in between, and individually each of us has little defense against it. Sadly, it seems almost guaranteed that more than 15,000 victims will succumb at the hands of drunk drivers before this year is over.

But, you might ask, haven't we made inroads on the drunk driving problem?

Yes, we have. According to the National Commission Against Drunk Driving (NCADD), there has been substantial progress in reducing drunk driving over the past 20 years. In the early 1980s, the citizen groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) helped focus public attention on the problem. In 1982, President Reagan established the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, and states strengthened their drunk driving laws, in many instances raised the drinking age to 21, and enforced anti-drunk driving laws more vigorously. In short the war against drunk driving became a popular crusade.

That crusade had a very positive effect. From 1982 to 2000, the number of traffic fatalities involving alcohol decreased 34 percent, from 25,165 to 16,653. The number of drivers in fatal crashes with a blood-alcohol count exceeding 0.10 decreased 38 percent, from 16,793 to 10,408. That's a big deal. Think of it: nearly 10,000 people escaped death at the hands of a drunk driver in the most recent year for which we have statistics, 2001, versus the experience in 1982.

The only problem is, the progress against drunk driving has now apparently come to a stop. According to a preliminary report of crash data released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the percentage of traffic deaths that were alcohol-related in 2001 remained unchanged at 40 percent -- 16,652 deaths -- a decreased of only one from 2000.

The study estimated the number of total highway deaths at 41,730 in 2001, down slightly compared to 41,821 in 2000. The number of injuries dropped from 3.2 million in 2000 to 3.0 million in 2001, which sounds positive, but the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles remained statistically the same: 1.50 in 2001, as compared to the 2000 rate of 1.52.

The national drunk driving toll changed very little from 1995 to 1999, rose in 2000 and remained at the 2000 level last year. Other issues seem to have replaced drunk driving as national priorities. Some participants in a recent NCADD "Town Hall Meeting" on the subject characterized drunk driving as an "old issue" that no longer commands the media attention it received 15 years ago.

"The fight against drunk driving has simply stalled, and it's time to jump-start it," said NCADD Chairman Robert Stempel. "Each year since 1994, alcohol-related traffic deaths have hovered between 16,000 and 17,000, while the percentage of highway deaths that have been alcohol-related has stagnated at about 40 percent."

In addition to the shocking death toll, an estimated 600,000 other people are injured each year in alcohol-related crashes. At the current level of drunk driving in America, about three in every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetimes, according to U.S. DOT. While the problem is not making headlines, there is no doubt that drunk driving remains a serious issue.

Which begs the question: what do we do about it?

The answer is two-fold. First, as NCADD noted, most of the hard, day-to-day work of reducing drunk driving occurs at the community level through law enforcement, prosecution and adjudication, probation and treatment, local coalitions, and public information and education through local media and schools. States establish and maintain most components of this drunk driving control system, in particular state laws, police, and courts, while the federal government and private organizations assist and influence state and community activities versus the problem. In short, a lot of people have to put their shoulders to the wheel and grind it out.

But there is another answer as well. The case-by-case, incident-by-incident attack on drunk driving can be infinitely strengthened if we mobilize the national will against this horrendous problem. And to do this, national leadership is essential. Strong national leadership can set priorities, allocate resources, attract media attention, and eventually produce action that combats the problem.

Identifying drunk drivers isn't nuclear science. Enforcing already existing traffic laws doesn't require an advanced degree in physics. But until we have the backbone as a country to attack this problem as we would attack terrorists who kill 15,000 of our citizens each year, the job just isn't going to get done. And the next person to suffer could be you.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is a strong advocate of tough enforcement of anti-drunk driving laws and of educational efforts to help alleviate the problem.

Your Winter Weather Driving Checklist

Let's not panic here. Most of us, even in the frigid North, survive winter weather just fine. We don't careen into other vehicles or get stranded for days in an out-of-the-way snow bank. But, like my grandmother said when prescribing clean underwear (just for the record, I try to don clean underwear each and every day), the worst could happen. You could run into the land-based equivalent of The Perfect Storm. You could get trapped with your car as your only form of shelter. So why not give it a little thought? It won't hurt your brain too much.

Last week we discussed proper winter driving techniques with an expert. Kevin Schrantz is a professional driver who teaches courses at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. This week we decided to funnel to you his expertise on preparing your vehicle for a trip in which you could encounter severe weather.

Schrantz's first bit of advice is check the weather forecasts before you depart. Each year drivers venture into high mountain passes and find themselves stranded by heavy snow, when a quick look at a weather forecast might have persuaded them to postpone their trip. If you're facing a prediction of severe weather, ask yourself the old World War II question: "Is this trip really necessary?"

If you decide to venture out, give yourself the advantage of traveling during daylight hours when visibility is usually much better than at night. Not only can you see better; you can also be seen better, which is a huge advantage if you get stuck and need assistance.

Make certain both you and your vehicle are prepared for the trip. It is important that your vehicle be mechanically sound and well equipped for winter weather. This means a proper level of anti-freeze coolant, sound belts and hoses, and properly inflated tires. Schrantz recommends that tires be inflated to the manufacturer's specifications, and he notes that specially designed snow and ice tires will offer much better performance than all-season tires in severe conditions. When preparing your car, don't forget little things like your windshield wiper blades and windshield solvent, because they can be crucial to your visibility. Schrantz also told us that adding weight to the trunk to increase traction has become passé, and in a front-drive car it might even impede your handling.

Finally, be prepared for the worst-case scenario -- getting stranded with my former mother-in-law. Okay, nothing can prepare you for that, but you can be prepared to spend hours or even days in your vehicle until rescue -- or Spring -- arrives.

First, don't drive on empty. If you're about to pass through a desolate area, make certain you have plenty of gasoline, because gas won't just get you home; it can keep you warm if you run the engine and heater judiciously. Just be aware carbon monoxide can build quickly in a non-moving car.

Second, carry what Schrantz calls the most important safety device you can bring with you -- a cellular telephone. A cell phone can quickly summon help, though service in out-of-the-way areas is still spotty.

Finally, pack a bag with winter weather necessities. This bag should include warm clothes, blanket, gloves and/or mittens, candle and waterproof matches or windproof lighter, flashlight, and some packaged food. In your cargo area, you should carry a shovel, windshield scraper, towrope or chain, jumper cables, flares and, perhaps a bag of sand or kitty litter to spread for traction. Sections of a cardboard box or even a blanket can also serve this function. Remember, too, that a mirror, like your car's interior rearview mirror, can be a good signaling device during sunny weather.

If you are stranded, stay with your vehicle. It will provide you shelter and is much easier to see than a lone individual hiking in a desolate area.

Jack R. Nerad, managing editor of Driving Today, always carries a bowl of hot chicken soup with him, just in case.