Do Anti-texting Laws Work?

In the war against distracted driving, banning of texting while driving has been a major battle.

But now, research from the Auto Club of Southern California has found that after an initial drop, texting while driving appears to be on the rise 15 months after California's texting ban was implemented.

The auto club says the observational roadside survey of drivers is the first examination of the long-term effects of a U.S. texting law. It is unlikely to be the last.

Before the texting law went into effect in California in January 2009, three auto club surveys conducted in mid- to late 2008 showed consistently that about 1.4 percent of motorists were texting at any point in time. Two surveys conducted shortly after the texting ban (May and July 2009) showed that texting (or manipulating electronic devices) had dropped about 70 percent, to about 0.5 percent. The latest survey, conducted in late March and early April 2010, shows that texting has more than doubled from the earlier studies, to 1.1 percent.

Many studies have clearly demonstrated the risks related to texting while driving. One study shows texting and driving raises the probability of a crash eightfold, while another shows it increases a truck driver’s chance of being in a crash by a factor of 24. Researchers call texting a “perfect storm” of danger because drivers take their hands off the steering wheel, and their eyes and minds are off the road.

“These results are disappointing,” said Steven Bloch, the auto club’s senior researcher. “The fact that we’re seeing a statistically significant rise in texting despite the state ban indicates that additional efforts are needed to help deal with the problem. It’s just over a year after California's texting ban was implemented, and texting is rising toward the level it was before the law.”

Several states have imposed similar bans of texting while driving, so the problem is potentially nationwide. One approach to change the tide against texting while driving is for law enforcement to issue more citations. However, it’s difficult for law enforcement agencies to cite texting motorists. Drivers typically hold devices in their lap, making it hard for law enforcement to see what motorists are doing. Texting citations are often given out by motorcycle officers, who have a better view of driver actions.

Because of this challenge, the California Highway Patrol reports issuing an average of only about 150 citations per month since the texting ban went into effect. By comparison, over the past year, the CHP issued about 11,600 hand-held cell phone citations each month.

“Agencies may need to rethink how they cite drivers for texting,” said Bloch. “A targeted New Jersey enforcement program uses officers standing on street corners to locate, pull over and cite cell phoning and texting drivers. That method of enforcement may be more effective.”

A second way to deter drivers from texting is by increasing penalties. The Auto Club of Southern California is currently supporting a proposed state bill that would raise the texting fine to $100 plus penalty assessments, up from $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. The bill also imposes a point on a motorist's driving record.

“Moving violations typically require the DMV to impose a point, and there is little reason that this dangerous traffic violation should be treated differently than others,” said Bloch. “Studies have established that imposing points on driving records is a very effective deterrent to hazardous driving.”

So while legislation to ban texting behind the wheel is a good and necessary first step to eliminating this hazard, those laws need to have real teeth to be effective.

Stop Parents From Driving

You can have a lot of awkward moments with your parents -- sitting with them at an R-rated movie, listening to them describe your first wife to your second wife, walking in on intimate moment. 

But one of the most awkward moments is the day you tell one of your parents they can’t drive any more. 

Should Your Parents Stop Driving?
Since driving means freedom to so many of us, the inability to drive can be devastating. Many older people are still competent drivers, but the normal process of aging can hamper driving ability, as can the medications that many elderly people take.

Statistics quoted by Foremost Insurance show that drivers over 75 are at the same risk for an accident as teenage and young adult drivers -- the 16- to 24-year-old age group. Just as with teenagers, though, only a portion of the population of older drivers are dangerous behind the wheel. Many others have very safe records. They use seat belts, and they don’t speed, drive recklessly or get behind the wheel after drinking. These older drivers may restrict their driving to daytime, and avoid bad weather and rush hour traffic. But many others would be much safer if they ceased driving forever.

Driving Behavior Tip-offs
If you have an elderly parent (or two), how do you know what to do? How do you decide on the best time is to take away the keys?

One good first step is to observe how they drive. A trip to the store or any other routine trip is a good opportunity to check out their driving. Initial indicators of driving skill problems may become apparent even before you get in the car. Scrapes, dents or scratches on the car or on items in the garage where the car is parked are indicators that all is not as it should be.

Other indicators that there may be trouble ahead are behaviors observed while in the car. Habits like riding the brake, getting distracted easily from the road ahead or confused about what to do at an intersection or signaling incorrectly are clear signs that driving ability is becoming impaired. While on the routine trip, watch out for instances of poor parking skills, hitting the curb or becoming confused with directions, signals or signs. Indicators that call for immediate attention are things like running red lights, getting lost in familiar places or confusing the gas and brake pedal.

Health Affects Driving Ability
Observing how a family member drives is the most important part of this process, but it’s also important to keep tabs on their health. To continue to drive, seniors and their families need to monitor their response time, vision and hearing. They -- or the children involved in this driving privileges decision -- also need to talk with their doctor about the medications they take and whether those medications will affect their driving ability.

Here are some questions you might ask regarding your loved ones’ health as it affects driving ability: Do they have a regular vision checkup and keep their corrective lenses prescriptions current? Do they seem to have trouble hearing, and if so, have they had their hearing checked? Do they need hearing aids but refuse, for reasons of frugality or vanity, to get them? Do they have memory problems?

Having the Driving “Talk”
Once you decide that persuading your loved one to quit driving is the right course, you’ll have to have “The Talk.” 

Find an opening. A discussion about a recent accident that was in the news or a discussion of stressful driving conditions may give a lead in to a discussion about driving capabilities. A spouse, an adult child or the family doctor is usually the best person to start the conversation. Most people would rather hear from a family member about concerns on their driving. The last person they want to hear it from is a police officer. You might be surprised to learn that your parent might actually be relieved about giving up the responsibility of driving …a s long as they feel they can still be mobile.   

4 Ways to Winterize Your Car

You are headed over the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house. You have presents to deliver, Christmas cheer to drink up, and the homey rapport you share with friends and family to bask in. The last thing you need is your car to quit on you.

While a stall in the summer might leave you irritated and sweltering in the heat, it’s much less likely to be life-threatening than a stall in midwinter. With temperatures dipping below freezing, the threat of hypothermia increases markedly, so keeping your car running is vitally important. And it’s not as difficult as it might sound: It simply requires a maintenance check. Here’s what to check before you set out in winter weather:

1. Battery and Electrical System
Nothing will stall you quicker than a dead battery. Cold weather is a severe test for any battery, so get your battery and charging system checked by a professional. Today’s best batteries require little or no maintenance, but they don’t last forever, so a preventive checkup is your best insurance.

2. Belts and Hoses
The failure of a $10 hose can easily drain all the coolant from your engine, which means you’re dead in the water … or more precisely, the slush. Five minutes of belt and hose inspection can help you avoid this. Look at belts for splits and frayed edges, which are signs of potential failure. If hoses feel spongy, they might well be nearing the end of their useful lives.

3. Fuel, Oil and Fluids
Winter is a bad time to run on “E.” Having fuel in your tank not only means you’re more likely to get where you’re going, but it also means you will have heat if you get stuck in a snowbank. Oil is the lifeblood of an engine, so using a premium-quality oil of the correct grade is critical to starting your car and keeping it running. While a coolant might seem like the last thing your car needs in the winter, coolant is critical to avoiding catastrophic engine meltdown. If your coolant has been in your car’s cooling system for more than 24 months, you’re due for a flush and fill.

4. Windshield and Wipers
Very often your visibility is impaired during the winter, and that can lead to accidents. Before you leave, take the time to thoroughly scrape the ice from your windshield, check that your windshield defroster is doing its job, and be sure your windshield washer fluid reservoir is topped off with fluid and your wipers are in good shape. Being seen is important too, so make certain your headlights and taillights are wiped clean. Don’t hesitate to turn on your headlights in the daytime if you think it might help other motorists see you.

Finally, when on the road, avoid distractions. There is a lot going on during the holiday season, and people are rushing to get it all done. Don’t be so intent on what you have to do that you forget your first obligation when you are behind the wheel: driving safely.

Seat Belt With Air Bag Brings More Safety

Air bags and seat belts are two safety innovations that have saved thousands of lives. So, why not combine the ideas? That’s the thinking behind the world’s first automotive inflatable seat belts. The innovation, to be introduced by Ford Motor Co., mixes attributes of traditional seat belts and air bags to provide an added level of crash safety protection for rear-seat occupants.

The new restraint system is designed to help reduce head, neck and chest injuries for rear-seat passengers -- often children and older passengers, who can be more vulnerable to such injuries. The inflatable rear seat belts will debut on the next-generation Ford Explorer, which goes into production next year. Over time, Ford plans to offer the technology in vehicles globally.

“Ford’s rear inflatable seat belt technology will enhance safety for rear-seat passengers of all ages, especially for young children who are more vulnerable in crashes,” said Sue Cischke, Ford group vice president of sustainability, environmental and safety engineering. “This is another unique family technology that builds on our safety leadership, including the most top safety ratings of any automaker.”

In everyday use, the inflatable belts operate like conventional seat belts and are compatible with safety car seats for infant and children. Made possible by advances in air bag inflation and seat belt construction methods, they are designed to deploy over a vehicle occupant’s torso and shoulder in 40 milliseconds during a crash. In a frontal or side crash, the increased diameter of each inflatable belt holds the occupant in the appropriate seating position more effectively, helping reduce the risk of injury. The use of cold compressed gas instead of a heat-generating chemical reaction, which is typical of traditional air bag systems, means the inflated belts feel no warmer on the wearer’s body than the ambient temperature.

One might suspect the inflatable belts would be bulky and uncomfortable, but in Ford’s research, more than 90 percent of those who tested the inflatable seat belts found them similar to or more comfortable than a conventional belt thanks to their padding and softness. That comfort factor could help improve the 61 percent rear belt usage rate in the U.S. -- versus 82 percent usage by front-seat passengers, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

“Ford is pioneering inflatable seat belt technology to help enhance crash safety protection while encouraging more people to buckle up with a more comfortable belt,” said Paul Mascarenas, Ford vice president of engineering for global product development.

The wearer has to do nothing beyond buckling up in the first place. When a crash occurs, vehicle safety sensors determine the severity of the collision in the blink of an eye and deploy the inflatable belts’ air bags. Each belt’s tubular air bag inflates with cold compressed gas, which flows through a specially designed buckle from a cylinder housed below the seat. The inflatable belt’s accordion-folded bag breaks through the belt fabric as it fills with air, expanding sideways across the occupant’s body in about the same amount of time it takes a car traveling at highway speed to cover a yard of distance.

“It’s a very simple and logical system, but it required extensive trial and error and testing over several years to prove out the technology and ensure precise reliable performance in a crash situation,” said Srini Sundararajan, safety technical leader for Ford research and advance engineering.

Learn to Share the Road

Some motorists see big-rig trucks -- the 800-pound gorillas of the road -- as dangerous, but generally they are only as dangerous as car drivers make them. For the most part semi-trailers and other trucks that crisscross our highways and byways are piloted by professional drivers who pride themselves on their hard-won driving skills 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 rearview 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 rearview 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.

"When I’m driving my big-rig, my view of the road is limited," one semi-truck driver told us recently. "There are places in front, behind and on both sides of a big semi-truck where I just can’t see what’s there 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 blind spots 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.

Remember, 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.