Driving With Distractions

Okay, I admit it: the other day I ate an In-N-Out Double-Double cheeseburger while I was driving home from a baseball game. Late last week I chatted with a co-worker while driving back to the office from a business meeting. And this evening when I leave my desk to head to my little stucco-covered castle, it’s possible I will speak to my wife on my cellular phone while I venture down a crowded freeway at 65 miles per hour.

Am I being careless with my life and those of other innocent people, many of whom no doubt have children and other loved ones, or is this distracted driving issue getting more play than it actually deserves?

If you are one whom believes that where there is smoke there is fire, the anecdotal evidence suggests that distracted driving is a big problem. Among the highly visible “distracted driver” accident victims are author Stephen King, who was reportedly struck by a driver who was trying to keep his dog from messing around in a cooler in the back, and supermodel Niki Taylor, who was critically injured when the driver of the car in which she was riding struck a utility pole after allegedly reaching down to answer a cellular phone.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) thinks enough of the problem to have initiated several inquiries about driver distraction. Testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, L. Robert Shelton, who is executive director of NHTSA, said, “Based on a 1996 NHTSA study, the agency estimates that driver distraction in all of its various forms probably contributes to between 20 and 30 percent of all crashes.”

The Network of Employers for Traffic Safety, a coalition of government and corporate members interested in reducing traffic accidents, estimates that one-quarter to one-half of the roughly six million crashes each year are caused by distracted drivers. Mark Edwards, who is managing director of safety programs for the American Automobile Association, says on a daily basis somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 to 8,000 crashes are caused by drivers who are distracted.

Certainly, if you believe these expert organizations, and there is no reason not to, the number of accidents caused by driver distractions is huge. But it is also a huge leap to look at these statistics, or more precisely estimates, and then conclude we must ban activities like cell phone use in automobiles. For some reason, (perhaps because they have become so ubiquitous in so short a time period) cellular telephones usually take the brunt of negative publicity surrounding distracted driving, but cellular phones are but one cause of distraction. Others include eating, drinking, being merry, adjusting radio controls, inserting CD or cassettes, adjusting the heat or air conditioning, turning the windshield wipers on, looking at a map, reading the newspaper, putting on makeup, talking with a passenger, swatting away insects, thinking…well, you get the idea. There are a lot of things that can take our attention away from our primary job when we are behind the wheel and that is driving. If we’re going to ban cellar phones, are we also going to ban the wide assortment of other in-vehicle pastimes, like fast food and thinking of my particular favorite, thinking about fast food?

When one looks at some of the data gathered on this issue, one also has to wonder how useful it is in examining the problem. According to recent survey of 1,026 drivers that was released to the media by NETS, 70 percent of drivers say they routinely talk to other passengers while driving. One has to wonder, are the other 30 percent mute or very shy? Just 47 percent said they adjust controls. Does this mean 53 percent never re-tune the radio, adjust the heat or turn on their headlights? Some 15 percent of drivers claimed they did nothing distracting at all, which makes one wonder if 15 percent of the population are congenital liars and/or sociopaths. Or, as the NHTSA’s Shelton put it in more politically correct terms, “Exact statistics may never be known due to the difficulty of determining driver actions prior to a crash.”

Certainly, drivers who do not pay proper attention to their driving responsibility are a problem on our streets, but let us look before we leap into knee-jerk solutions.

The co-host of the syndicated radio show “America on the Road,” Jack R. Nerad has participated in numerous safety programs in his years as an automotive journalist.

Child Safety and Cars

If you follow your state laws regarding child safety seats, your children must be safe in your car, right? Oh, how wrong you are. Many safety experts agree that no set of state laws currently provides for the comprehensive efforts necessary to protect children as well as they might be protected. Further, many state laws leave some children woefully unprotected even though proper measures are clear. But if you answered "yes" to our original question, you are among the majority of parents in the United States.

A new national study found that nine out of ten parents believe that if they adhere to their state's current child passenger safety laws, they will be taking adequate steps to protect their children. The survey queried 1,000 parents and caregivers with children eight years of age and younger. It was conducted by DaimlerChrysler and its free child safety seat inspection service -- Fit for a Kid -- with technical assistance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Despite significant gains that have been made in persuading parents to properly restrain their children in child safety seats, the problem is still a serious one. Car crashes remain the number one killer of children. According to NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), in the 1990s 4,666 children between four and eight years old were killed in car crashes. Of these, 2,694 (58 percent) children were completely unrestrained and 1,223 (26 percent) children were incorrectly restrained in an adult seat belt. Sadly, the DaimlerChrysler survey indicated that we have a long way to go before parents understand what steps are necessary to protect their precious cargo.

The survey found that 96 percent of parents/caregivers did not know the correct age at which a child no longer requires a child safety seat or booster seat. Less than 10 percent of children between the ages of four and eight use booster seats at all, despite the consensus of safety experts that they are necessary for children between 40 and 80 pounds and up to four feet, nine inches tall. Though most children between four and eight years old fit into this category, very few of them routinely ride in booster seats.

Amazingly, such populous states as New York and Ohio allow children as young as three years old to ride completely unrestrained in the back seat or to ride using just an adult seat belt rather than in a safety seat. The often-untold story is that seat belts do not fit most children under the age of eight and can actually cause serious injury to small children in a crash. Two states -- California and Washington -- have recently passed new laws requiring children to be in booster seats but only up to age six or 60 pounds.

Both NHTSA and the National Safety Council say this isn't going far enough. They recommend the use of child safety seats, including booster seats for children up to the four foot, nine inch height ceiling. Because no state laws meet these standards, more than 20 million children are at risk of death or injury in crashes as a result.

Jack R. Nerad, managing editor of Driving Today, is the father of two small children with another on the way. He is the current record-holder for installing and uninstalling child safety seats and booster seats in various test vehicles.

Driving Rain

Winter has blown itself out, spring has sprung, and summer is on its way. To you that might mean the worst of the year's weather is already behind us, but summer weather presents its own set of hazards as thousands of unlucky motorists learn each year. Summer is the peak driving season of the year, which mean more people are on the road, more miles are being driven and more accidents are taking place. Many of these accidents can be blamed on the weather. Approximately 5,000 deaths and 500,000 injuries in the United States resulted from automobile crashes attributed to inclement weather in 1999, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Many most of those accidents could have been avoided if drivers knew and followed some basic safe driving practices when the weather turned foul.

Foul weather doesn't need to be feared, but it must be respected. In fact, having a healthy respect for the power of wind, rain and other weapons wielded by Mother Nature is the first defense against a potentially serious weather-induced accident. Bad weather can descend upon you suddenly and seemingly without warning. You can find yourself in a deluge of rain, a thick fog, or a flash-flooded viaduct in a matter of seconds. But if you drive with that knowledge in the back of your mind and with the steps you should take when foul weather strikes, you will be much better prepared to survive the situation.

Remember, posted speed limits are for "ideal" weather and maximum visibility. Even moderate rain can seriously limit your ability to see potential traffic hazards, including not only other vehicles but also pedestrians and objects that may be washed by rain onto the pavement. In addition, wet pavement has a serious effect on typical vehicle braking distances. In fact, it can take twice the usual distance to stop your vehicle when the pavement is even slightly wet, so keeping a good interval between you and the vehicle in front of you is crucial in the rain.

Further, just because the rain might not be heavy doesn't mean that it won't affect your ability to stop quickly and safely. A light rain can actually make the pavement more slippery than a heavy rain, especially if it comes after a dry period in which oil and other automotive liquids have been deposited on the roadway. The resulting mixture of oil and water caused by a light rain can be extremely hazardous.

When driving in the rain, it is often safest to stay in the middle lanes of multi-lane roads and freeways. Water tends to pool in outside lanes, and pools of water can throw even the best vehicle's handling awry. Hitting a deep pool of water is not unlike hitting an object, so it can play havoc with your steering. If that situation is complicated by close proximity to a center divider or another car, a serious accident could result.

Each year a few unfortunate souls drown at the wheel of their cars under flooded bridges or viaducts. While this type of accident seems to defy logic, many motorists will attempt to enter flooded areas gingerly, just testing to see how deep the water really is, but then find themselves in much deeper than they envisioned. The simple solution when you come upon a flooded roadway: turn around and find another route. You have to ask yourself, is a few minutes of your time worth potential damage to your vehicle and injury or even death for yourself and your passengers? If the answer is yes, go right ahead. Otherwise, find an alternate route.

In addition to rain, summer fog presents another potential hazard to drivers. Even in otherwise clear weather, fog banks can occur in damp, low lying areas or in the mountains where summer weather can turn quickly to Arctic conditions. Reduced visibility is not the only effect of fog either. It can make roads slick, so when driving in fog, adjust your speed, avoid over steering and brake smoothly.

Fog also can produce panic, and panic can then induce erratic driving behavior. If you encounter a fog bank, don't jam on the brakes. Very often in a fog, your biggest hazard is not in front of you but, instead, behind you in the form of following traffic that could well rear-end your vehicle if you slow down too quickly. It is far better to reduce your speed gradually, while paying special attention to cars and trucks on all sides of your vehicle.

By behaving in that manner you show respect for the weather and respect for your fellow drivers. Not only is such respect worthwhile behavior, it can also save your life.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on auto safety related topics.

Road Rage II

Nothing delights a writer more than response to his or her writing: To learn that your attempt at communication has been heard. Rarely have we at Driving Today seen as much response to an article than that which filled our email inbox after our recent article on the phenomenon popularly dubbed "road rage."

The article examined the issue and asked: Is road rage really a major safety problem? After looking at several sides of the argument, we advanced the premise that while road rage is a very real phenomenon that seems to be gaining momentum, most of what is labeled "road rage" in the real world is simply discourteous, boorish behavior. Certainly, one could make the case that boorish behavior is on the rise off the highways as well as on them. As to "road rage" incidents that actually cost people their lives, those seem exceedingly rare occurrences, based on what we believe to be credible statistics. Just because these incidents are rare, however, does not mean that we at Driving Today don't see them as a problem. Any behavior that costs innocent human life is a big problem.

Because of the volume of response to the original article, and the widely varied opinions that response represented, we thought it would be useful to air many of the readers' comments in a second article on the subject. Some are frightening; some are amusing, and some, I'm sorry to say, seemed filled with rage of their own. They are reprinted here, edited by Driving Today and accompanied by my responses, when appropriate:


Dear Jack:
I came home today after driving my wife to work, having breakfast at Jimmy's where I always have breakfast, all normal patterns of my life, except I nearly died this morning. I was nearly killed by a driver with an attitude.

I had taken a different route home and was unaware of the construction taking place on a long curve in the road. I stopped for the construction sign, waited for the traffic to clear, rounded the sign and passed the men at work very slowly. The road ahead was clear in my lane. Free of signs and working men. I saw ahead there was a sign in the left hand lane that said, " Men working." It was a big sign set squarely in the middle of the lane. I also saw an on-coming RV with the young man in question approaching the sign. What warned me was the expression on his face, past experience with that expression. The RV swerved around the sign without slowing or giving way to on-coming traffic (ME!), narrowly missing a head-on collision. Like I said, my life nearly ended this morning because the rules of the road and common courtesy always applies to everyone else except the reprobate-minded.

Sincerely,
Ern



Interestingly, the man Ern described matched the "profile" of the dangerous road-rager we described in the previous article, namely, a young male who might well be prone to other violent and anti-social acts. The reader, who identified himself as a former military policeman and Georgia law enforcement officer, said he "can spot the reprobate-minded a mile away." The following reader had an equally scary story to tell.

I live in Silicon Valley, [where] you must plan your day to beat the congestion of traffic. My neighborhood is upscale; homes start at $300,000 and go up to $10 million. Now you would think the individuals who live here are intelligent and keep themselves controlled. Not so.

Recently my fiance and I came upon an incident where road rage was the blame. It all started because a male driver was traveling too close to a female driver. When the two vehicles came to a stoplight, the female got out of her RX-7, walked up to the cab of the vehicle and slapped the guy in the truck. When she went back into her vehicle, the guy in the truck came up behind her and pushed her vehicle into the intersection with his truck. All this happened while they were waiting at a red light.

This guy then took off around her, allegedly doing 70 mph, and slammed into the side of a vehicle who was making a legal left turn, killing an innocent person of 25 who was on his lunch break with one of his workers.

Let me say this, the next time you flip someone off, cut someone off, get mad or pull a gun over a road rage incident, go to Santa Clara County Jail and visit the guy who killed the 25-year-old. Every minute of the day he is begging for mercy, wishing he could change back time. Think before you react. One second can change your whole life.

[Unsigned]



Sadly, thinking before acting has become a rare trait, and the following message reinforces that point.

Hi Jack,
I have been subjected to several road rage situations that (thankfully) did not turn into real bodily harm but were headed that way. [In one] a big pickup truck tried to push me into on-coming traffic from a yield sign, and when we were both on the other highway, the guy tried to cause me to wreck. All I could do was to keep cool and let the guy go on.

Everyone is in such a hurry to get somewhere that they drive a minimum 20 miles per hour over the limit. Many pass in double yellow lined zones or don't even stop at a stoplight.

Ralph Atkins



Many instances of assault using a vehicle as a weapon are on file. Ralph also brings up a prevalent topic identified by many readers - speeding. It seems that many people get especially irritated with drivers who pass them. Here's an example of that sentiment:

It seems everyday I see more and more instances of someone driving aggressively. The root of the problem seems to be that no one allows time for traffic backups and expects to go from Point A to Point B in record-breaking time.

The posted speed limit means absolutely nothing to the drivers of today. There once was a time when you could drive down the road going the posted speed limit with everyone following you at a safe distance. Now, no matter how fast you are driving, the driver behind you just wants to be ahead of you.

A very concerned motorist
Jacksonville, Florida



Interestingly, though, our article also elicited some defenders of those who take an active approach behind the wheel.

As an aggressive driver, I take exception to the use of the term "aggressive" when speaking about road rage. In my opinion, an aggressive driver is one who is constantly watching the road ahead, looking for problems to avoid. It used to be called being a defensive driver, but with the current media hype, the term has been altered to mean someone who is a violent, unsafe driver who will shoot the nearest offender of his right to rule the road.

Yes, I take advantage of the lanes available to me on the highway, but without jeopardizing the safety of myself or the drivers around me. I take full responsibility for my actions while behind the wheel, unlike many drivers who think that driving is a "God-given right."

You've seen them, in the snow or rain, blasting along in the passing lane, blowing smoke up everyone's tailpipe as they cradle their cell-phone on their shoulder, their self-importance overriding all standards of safety. And, heaven help the person who happens to get in their way, interrupting the flow of their oblivious travels. This is not being an aggressive driver. This is being stupid, rude and obnoxious.

The violence on today's roads is scary to say the least, but we should address the violence, address the lack of driving skills, and address the attitudes of the disenfranchised. Obtaining a driving license should be far more difficult, with stricter standards of safety and skill, with medical testing to establish reaction times and other physical limitations that would impair driving ability. Anyone who reaches the proper age can get a license today, and once that paper is secured, can go forth and wreak havoc on the population with a steel monster that can devastate lives. Grouping me with those who show little regard for the safety of others is grossly negligent and unresponsive to the real problems facing the expanding world.

Thanks for letting me vent,
RMD



Finally, a couple of readers were honest about their own feelings of frustration and anger behind the wheel.

I am one who can be called road-enraged. I take it as an offense if somebody waves the finger at me, and it is returned. If he gets aggressive enough to climb out of his car, I am prepared to shoot. But so far, no one has gone far enough to [force me] to defend myself.

I am now 66 years old. I think it's a question of personal self-defense. I don't know what the other drivers think, but one thing is for sure...in a day where honor is just a word, I will still die to uphold honor in the way I live.

[Unsigned]


Mr. Nerad,
It seems that anything spoken of road rage is always slanted (go figure) at the "mad" driver. I have owned and operated an oversize-load escort service for 19 years and put between 60,000 and 70,000 miles on my vehicle a year. I will be honest and admit at the outset, I GET MAD.

Take for example the Ohio State Trooper who was on a load with us in Akron. Our little parade was stretched out about a mile on I-76. We were going to go south on I-77, when this trooper shot down the entrance ramp and as soon as he got to the end of the ramp, he moved over to the right lane and came to a DEAD STOP!!

How about the people sailing down the far left lane only to go directly to the exit that they take every night...probably across the same three or four lanes of high-speed traffic? I guess if people get really mad about stuff like that, then road rage is wrong. The funny part is I had to take a test to get my license, but I'm not convinced that very many other people did.

Thanks, Ron Hansotte
L.R.H. Escorting
New Castle, Pa



And that may represent the majority view, namely, my driving is fine; others' driving is atrocious. I have no doubt that people like Ron are good drivers who get upset with the poorer quality driving others exhibit. It's what they do with the anger that is important. If that anger engenders retaliation in kind, then it is very wrong and very dangerous. If it engenders violence, it is not only dangerous; it is criminal. And criminal behavior is the real threat of the road rage phenomenon.


-- Jack Nerad

Jack R. Nerad commutes every day in the city many see as the road rage capital of America: Los Angeles, California.

Winter Road Rules

Let's face it: We can't close the door on winter. Even though walking up a sandy beach to climb into a top-down convertible is far preferable to stumbling down a snow-covered sidewalk, only to scramble into a frigid car that may or may not start. When you get right down to the nub, winter driving is darn inconvenient and, at its worst, it can be supremely hazardous. But that doesn't mean you have to park your chariot in the garage and hibernate all winter, as tempting as that may sound.

A little bit of preparation and a big pinch of patience can make winter driving a reasonably painless experience. First, see to it that your vehicle is prepared for the long winter's night. Then, determine if your skills and psyche are equally well tuned to the task. Herewith are suggestions for you and your vehicle that might make the difference between a joyous winter season and a cold winter's nap.

Prepare Your Vehicle

Your brakes, windshield wipers, defroster, heater and exhaust system should be in top condition. These systems have a harder workout in the winter than they do in the summer. The condition of your windshield wipers and the performance of your defroster are crucial to your vision and your safety.

Check your cooling system anti-freeze and add anti-freeze solvent to your windshield washer reservoir to prevent icing. The windshield washer is an often neglected but vital piece of safety equipment. If you run out of fluid or if your system freezes, it can severely injure your ability to see.

Check your tires. Make sure they are properly inflated and the tread isn't worn out. Many vehicles are equipped with so-called "all-season" tires, and these tires perform well in most weather conditions. For reliable traction in snow, however, specially designed snow tires are best.

Consider carrying traction devices, such as snow chains or snow treads. Check that they are the proper size, in working order and, equally important, that you know how to install them. Pack gloves and a flashlight to aid installation, which usually occurs in the worst weather imaginable. Traction devices must be installed on the drive wheels, so find out if your vehicle is front- or rear-wheel drive. Note, too, that even some sport utility vehicles these days are primarily front-wheel drive. They might benefit from having chains or other devices installed on the front wheels.

Carry an ice scraper or commercial deicer; a broom for brushing snow off your car; a shovel to free your car from drifts; sand, kitty litter or carpet scraps for traction if your wheels should become mired in snow; and a towel to wipe your sweat and clean your hands.

Carry water, food, reflective "space" blankets and extra clothing. While these preparations might make you feel like you're a member of the Donner party, you'll be relieved to have them in case of a lengthy delay at a snow-closed highway.

Keep plenty of fuel in your gas tank. Though you don't need to top off at every opportunity, you don't want to be stuck in bad weather with a short supply of fuel. Remember, it might be necessary to change routes during a bad storm or you might be caught in a traffic delay.

Keep your vehicle's windshield and windows clean. Many winter accidents are caused by limited visibility, so use your windshield wipers and windshield wiper solvent generously. Don't hesitate to stop at a safe turnout to use a snow brush or scraper to gain better visibility in all directions. And use the car defroster and a clean cloth to keep the windows fog free.

Put an extra car key in your wallet or pocket. A number of motorists have locked themselves out when applying traction devices.

Prepare Yourself

Get an early start to allow enough time to complete your trip. Remember that poor winter weather necessitates a slower rate of travel, so trips that take an hour in the summer might take twice to three times as long. Rushing to reach a destination in bad weather conditions is a prescription for disaster.

Drive defensively. Speeds that are appropriate on dry, well-lit highways can be dangerous in poor weather conditions. Snow and ice on the pavement will drastically increase the distance it takes for your vehicle to stop, so leave more distance between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead.

Be careful on bridges and in areas of sun and shade. Overpasses and shady spots can be icy when other portions of the pavement are not, so be particularly wary when crossing a bridge or driving in area of intermittent sun and shade. Sudden stops and quick direction changes on slick and icy surfaces can be especially dangerous.

Be observant. Visibility is often limited in winter by weather conditions. You may encounter slow-moving vehicles, including snow-moving equipment. Stay alert for the flashing lights that might warn you of such equipment on the roadway.

If you are stalled or stranded, stay with your vehicle and try to conserve fuel while maintaining warm. Be alert to any possible carbon monoxide problems within your car; recognizing that carbon monoxide is an odorless, invisible gas that can creep into your vehicle through a leaky exhaust system. When stranded, make certain that the outlet of your exhaust pipe remains unimpeded by snow and ice.

Obey highway signs indicating chains are required or road closures. You can be cited by authorities and fined, or even jailed if you don't. By all means, don't venture into areas where roads have been closed. they're closed for a reason, and that reason is safety.

Drive slowly when equipped with chains or other traction devices. The speed limit when chains are required is usually 25 or 30 miles an hour.

Steer clear of danger when installing safety devices. When you put on traction equipment, wait until you can pull completely off the roadway to the right. Do not stop in a traffic lane.


Having lived in Illinois and California, Nerad is a veteran of winter and mountain driving. Thanks to the California Department of Transportation for its contributions to this article.