Safest Drivers in the United States

Okay, they might not have the freshest sushi in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the nightlife might pale in comparison to a more cosmopolitan city like, say, Des Moines, but there’s one claim Sioux Falls can make what others can’t: It is the home of the safest drivers in the U.S., according to the fourth annual Allstate America’s Best Drivers Report. For the second year running, Sioux Falls drivers topped the list, and their combined record is impressive. With the average driver in Sioux Falls experiencing an auto collision every 14.6 years, Sioux Falls motorists are 31.6 percent less likely than the national average to have an accident.

“I am happy to know that our residents are continuing to drive safely,” said Dave Munson, mayor of Sioux Falls. “The quality of our community driver education programs, combined with the careful consideration of our traffic engineering department, goes a long way to make our roadways safe for everyone.”

Not only did Sioux Falls cling tight to the No. 1 spot on the list, but Fort Collins, Colo., held onto the No. 2 spot for the third consecutive year. On average, motorists in Fort Collins experience a car collision every 13.4 years, making them 25.5 percent less likely to experience a collision than the nationwide average.

So, you might be asking yourself, how does Allstate know this, and what does it really mean? For the past four years, Allstate actuaries have conducted an in-depth analysis of company claim data to determine the likelihood drivers in America’s 200 largest cities will experience a vehicle collision compared to the national average. Since the insurance company’s auto policies represent about 12 percent of all U.S. auto policies, the report is a realistic snapshot of what’s happening on America’s roadways. As to what this really means, you might have to judge for yourself, but one obvious reality is that residents of smaller cities are less likely to be involved in a crash than those who live in big cities. Detroit was the only city with a population of 500,000 to make the top 10, and its drivers finished in the 10th position. With a collision every 12.4 years, they are 19.5 percent less likely to be involved in a collision than the average American driver.

2007 seemed to be a year of especially safe driving by Michigan drivers. In addition to Detroit, three more Michigan cities and towns -- Sterling Heights, Warren and Grand Rapids -- found a spot on the top 10 list. Midwestern drivers appear to continue to recognize the importance of driving safely. Half of the 10 top cities are in America’s heartland, according to the report.

So how do big-city dwellers fare? Not so well, according to the report. For the fourth consecutive year, drivers in Phoenix, Ariz., are the safest big-city commuters, according to Allstate. Phoenix motorists can expect to bump into another vehicle (or worse) on the roadway every 9.8 years -- slightly more frequently than the national average. San Diego, New York, Houston and San Antonio round out the top five in cities with populations of a million or more.

Teen Drivers Need a Full Tank of Z-Z-Zs

Teens have the highest crash rates in the country. That is a plain, simple and -- if you’re a parent -- very frightening fact.  Many chalk it up to the exuberance and inexperience of youth, plus the serious problem of teenage drinking.  But now insurance company GEICO says it agrees with a growing number of sources, including the National Sleep Foundation, that the problem could be reduced by a good night’s sleep. Why? Because teenagers these days get the least sleep of any studied group.

Two critical factors collide when teens are in their early driving years: 1) they need nearly 9.5 hours of sleep every night to accommodate an upswing in growth and hormone development, and 2) they get far less sleep than they need -- an average of 7.4 hours a night, and considerably less than that for many. Compounding the problem further, some researchers say that teens’ biological clocks are set so that they fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning, a schedule that makes the early morning classes most schools require difficult. It all results in a nation of very sleepy teenagers. And a sleepy teenager behind the wheel is a recipe for disaster.

To ward off that disaster, parents with teen drivers should observe their teens’ sleeping habits and adjust them so teens get additional sleep. Teens must have more sleep to stay alert, make sound judgments and maintain clear thinking and quick reflexes when driving. Look for warning signs of sleep deprivation.  For example, your teen may be sleep deprived if he or she can’t wake up in the morning, is irritable late in the day, falls asleep spontaneously during the day or sleeps at great length on weekends.

While that might sound like a description of most teens most of the time, it could be the gap in their sleep hours versus what they require that is at the heart of a lot of tragic adolescent behavior. And the driving danger is clear. Drowsy driving is a principle cause of traffic crashes each year, and young drivers are particularly vulnerable since they could be operating most of the time on much less sleep than they need.

So what can you do? An important step is reworking your teens’ schedules so they can accomplish what they need and want to accomplish while still getting proper amounts of sleep -- and that is more sleep than required by the typical adult parent. It’s important for both parents and teens to recognize the signs of fatigue and change daily schedules to allow for healthier sleep cycles.

It won’t be easy, because teens have a lot to keep them up on school nights. But you can help your children build good time management skills. Encourage teens to estimate how long tasks will take and plan realistically to complete them. Get them to start early and avoid procrastination. Establishing a reasonable bedtime and sticking to it can go a long way in assuring that teens get the sleep they need. Create a bedtime routine that winds down the pace. For example, the Mayo Clinic suggests a warm bath or shower, a book, relaxing activities and for 30 minutes before lights out no loud music, video games, phone calls or Internet use. Eliminate caffeinated drinks in the evening, and make sure your teens complete their exercise and sports programs well before bedtime.

A well-rested teen is a safer teen. And a well-rested teen isn’t as likely to be cranky or obstinate, either. For some, sleep is -- next to love -- the best medicine.

Motivating Safety

Ever wonder about that limo driver who is ferrying you from the airport to that important business meeting? Is he a professional whose first goal is your safety or is he a risk-taker who just wants to dump you as quickly as possible so he can move on to the next the doughnut shop?

These days, executive transport -- commonly known as "the limousine business" -- has become much more professional. And while accidents still happen, the best companies are making extraordinary efforts to guarantee your safety. Of course, no business ever grew larger by killing its customers, plus, by limiting accidents executive transportation companies also limit their insurance, downtime and repair expenses. 

Now one company, New York-based Valera Global, has adopted a unique approach to protecting the safety of its passengers and chauffeurs, and it has an unusual twist. While many transportation companies focus only on penalizing drivers with a less than perfect history, Valera Global's focus is on rewarding its safest chauffeurs. The cumulative effects of these combined efforts have had positive results. The company now enjoys one of the best safety records in the industry, and having safer chauffeurs has yielded an added bonus: increased customer satisfaction.

The driver-safety program is pervasive and impressive. It includes implementing the latest technologies and state-of-the-art safety features, an intensive pre-screening process for prospective chauffeurs, defensive driving and training seminars for new and previously-hired chauffeurs, compensating chauffeurs for excellence, and an annual awards dinner that recognizes and rewards the chauffeurs with the best safety record. The company has a full-time certified driving instruction on staff, and it conducts ongoing performance evaluations via DriveCam, an in-vehicle device that monitors the driving habits of chauffeurs.

"During the four years since we implemented the DriveCam system, we have seen a 20 percent drop in the number of incidents," said Valera Global Training Director Tony Notaristefano. "But the camera does not do this alone. We believe these drops are a direct result of our entire safety program, which also includes one-on-one counseling and defensive-driving instruction."

On January 12th, Valera Global held its eighth annual awards dinner, recognizing driver safety and other achievements. Categories included: Accident-Free Recognition Awards, Rookie of the Year, Most-Improved Chauffeur, Best-Kept Vehicles, Best-Dressed Chauffeurs, Top-Earning Chauffeurs and Chauffeur of the Year, among others.

"Everyone at Valera Global looks forward to the awards ceremony each year. It's become a very competitive event, and you need to be among the best to win," said Notaristefano. "Not everyone goes home with an award, but I assure you that all of our chauffeurs take the issue of driver safety very seriously, and they are all winners as far as I am concerned."

Based in Cleveland, Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently about auto safety issues.

Cars Talking to Cars

As a driver, you have the responsibility to know and understand what the vehicles around you are doing and what threats they might pose to your safety. But in the future, your car might share that responsibility by sensing what other vehicles near yours are doing and giving you warnings that can help you respond to that information. And of course, beyond that, we might eventually see vehicles that assume the entire responsibility for dealing with other vehicles and the environment, while you sit back until you are delivered to your destination.

None of this is nearly as far into the future as you might imagine. In fact, many vehicle manufacturers are hard at work on technologies that can enable all the scenarios we outlined above. The technology could significantly mitigate heavy traffic problems as well. For instance, General Motors vehicles equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle technology can detect the position and movement of other vehicles around them whether they are in blind spots, stopped ahead on the highway but hidden from view, around a blind corner or blocked by other vehicles.

Additionally, other vehicles will know where your vehicle is, too. With this "sixth sense" cars and trucks equipped with this technology can anticipate where other vehicles are up to a quarter of a mile away and can react to potentially hazardous driving situations. To help alert you to the possibility of dangerous incidents, the system can warn the driver with chimes, visual icons and seat vibrations. If the driver doesn't respond to the alerts, the vehicle can bring itself to a safe stop, avoiding a collision.

The system in action seems almost magical. GM's V2V technology can warn the driver when a vehicle ahead, regardless of lane, is stopped, is traveling much slower than approaching cars or is braking hard, allowing the driver to brake or change lanes as needed. It also can activate rear lights to warn another driver when his or her approaching vehicle is moving too quickly toward your stopped or slower-moving car and a rear-end collision is imminent.

While many auto manufacturers are digging deep into these techniques, GM feels its unique advantage in this area is its ability to leverage or enhance existing driver-assistance systems such as OnStar and StabiliTrak to deliver solutions more quickly and cost effectively. The company says much of the technology that is a precursor to vehicle-to-vehicle communications exists today and that sophisticated V2V communications and safety systems could be on vehicles in five to 10 years.

Today, some state-of-the-art new luxury vehicles are equipped with multiple safety sensors, including a long-range scanning sensor for adaptive cruise control, forward-vision sensors for object detection, mid-range blind spot detection sensors and long-range lane-change-assist sensors. These systems might be included in or perhaps replaced by new-generation V2V systems, which could make the systems less costly and expand their use to less expensive vehicles.

For example, GM's experimental vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications combines a simple antenna, a computer chip, and GPS (Global Positioning System) technology that allows vehicles to communicate their positions to each other. Equipped vehicles can detect other vehicles up to a quarter mile away (well beyond "line of sight") and then can communicate potentially dangerous situations to the drivers. One advisory sensor has the capability of providing all-around instantaneous traffic intelligence as well. This promises a better and significantly less-costly way of sensing other vehicles on or off the road.

How important is this? Consider this scenario: you get in your vehicle, tell it by voice command where you want to go, and it drives you there safely, using the most direct route taking into account traffic conditions and possible road construction delays. You might never put your hands on the steering wheel or your foot to the gas pedal. In addition to providing significantly better safety than today's vehicles and their human drivers, this could increase the vehicle-handling capabilities of our current roadway system, minimizing traffic snarls and even cutting the use of fuel. That's very smart, indeed.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Automobiles Don't Mix Well with Trains

Before the automobile began its ascendancy to prominence, the iron horse reigned supreme across the land. These days, cars and trucks haul most of the people and freight, but interaction between trains and automobiles continues and, sadly, American drivers have proven they are not that good at it.  As evidence, in the United States a person or a vehicle is struck by a train about every two hours.

The busy holiday season and inclement winter weather can add to the danger. To combat this hazard, a safety organization called Operation Lifesaver, a national non-profit safety education group seeking to eliminate deaths and injuries at railroad crossings and along railroad rights of way, has specific recommendations that can help keep you and your family safe.

First, when battling winter conditions, think about slowing down, especially when weather and/or visibility are poor. Snow-covered or gridlocked roads hamper safety. Since being forewarned is being forearmed, watch for advance warning signs (most often a yellow sign with R X R) indicating railroad tracks cross the road ahead. Be prepared to slow down or stop well before the crossing, because compromised road conditions could result in longer stopping distances than normal. Trains are wider than their tracks, so if you stop near or at a crossing, be sure you are at least 15 feet from the tracks.

Trains also have exceptionally long stopping distances because immensely heavy train cars riding on steel wheels will take a substantial period of time to come to a halt even after the engineer sees an object in its path. Leave extra space between your vehicle and the crossing, which is often marked with a crossbuck symbol, flashing red lights or a gate, so if a car nudges you from behind, it won't push you into the crossing.

Look and listen. Bad weather and dirty car windows can severely limit your vision. Clean off all snow and ice that might block vision before you drive, including snow on the roof and hood that can slide or blow onto your windows or those of cars behind you. Turn your head to see around mirrors, passengers, and any visual obstructions inside your car. Don't rely on sight alone either. Listen for the sound of a train, even though it may be muffled by snow and obscured by the sound of your radio and the heater.

Each year, dozens of drivers are killed needlessly because they chose to ignore warning lights and crossing gates. Don't take a chance by driving around lowered gates you think are "malfunctioning." They might know something you don't, namely, the arrival of a train is imminent.

When you are waiting at a railroad crossing, be aware that the passing of one railroad train doesn't mean another is not right behind it. Watch for the "second train," whether it is behind the first or coming from the opposite direction. Always look both ways before proceeding.

Finally, if your vehicle gets stuck on a railroad crossing, don't stay with it in an effort to get it going again. Your car can be replaced; your life can't. Instead, quickly exit the vehicle, move away from the tracks, and call 911 or the railroad number displayed on the sign at the crossing. Mention any nearby landmarks, particularly the "DOT" number displayed at the crossing if you can see it.

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about automobiles and the human condition, and, though he loves driving, he frequently takes the train.