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April 29, 2013

Ladies Take Note: Intelligent Technology = Improved Highway Safety


Highlights of the 2013 Lifesavers Conference on Highway Safety

The Lifesavers Conference is an annual gathering of highway safety professionals dedicated to reducing deaths and injuries on our nation’s roadways. Denver was the site of the organization’s 31st annual event, attracting an estimated 1,700 automotive engineers, transportation officials, law enforcement, first responders, medical professionals, and child safety advocates.

And this year, I was there for AskPatty as a guest of Toyota, one of the event’s “Champion” sponsors. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect when I accepted the automaker’s invitation -- other than the vague expectation that I would learn a little something about automotive safety. What I got was three intensive days of workshops focused on different pieces of a complex puzzle: Occupant Protection (for both adults and children), Roadway Safety, Teen Traffic Safety, Distracted Driving, Impaired Driving, Law Enforcement and Vulnerable Populations (i.e., senior citizens, immigrants, Native Americans).

Here are some highlights:

ICCE_First_Student_Wallkill_bus_wikipediaSchool Bus Safety

The conference opened with a keynote from Karolyn Nunnallee, former president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who recounted the horror of losing her daughter, Patty, in a 1988 school bus accident in Carrollton, Kentucky. The head-on collision with a drunk driver blocked the bus door and ruptured its fuel tank. There was just one other emergency exit, in the back of the bus. The vehicle's seats were upholstered in flammable material and the small fire extinguisher on board was not sufficient to put out the quickly spreading flames. Ten-year-old Patty Nunnallee was one of 27 people who died in the fire.

The Carollton school bus crash is the subject of "Impact," a documentary that will be released next month on the 25th anniversary of the incident.

As a result of Carrollton, new school bus safety standards were enacted. Today's buses must offer multiple emergency exits, fuel tank protections and flame retardant seating. 

"When it comes to school buses, safety should never be an option," Karolyn Nunnallee said.

Elegant-older-womanFlip Sides of the Same Coin: Older Drivers and Teens

The fact that my teenage daughter can now drive herself to school is what enabled me to attend this conference, so of course I was interested in hearing about teen safety. But I also have elderly parents who drive -- and it won't be long before I'm a senior citizen myself. So I wanted to get a preview of what to expect as I join the rank of aging drivers, too.

What struck me is how similar the concerns are on both ends of the age-spectrum.

A session on state programs for older drivers presented some interesting statistics:

  • According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, older driver accidents have decreased nationally -- despite the fact that the population of seniors is exploding (from 40 million in 2009 to 67 million by 2050).
  • The older population (defined as 65 and up) is involved in both driving and pedestrian safety incidents and surprisingly, motorcycles: There are six times as many older motorcyclists than in 1997.
  • More older males die in vehicle accidents than females.
  • Reasons for decline in driving ability are both physical and mental: they include changes in vision, how our bodies function, and overall fragility. There can be cognitive reasons for accidents, such as getting lost.

This session highlighted how three states are working with their older driving populations. 

"Older driver safety is about prevention and thinking ahead to the increase in population of older licensed drivers," said Nanette Scheike of the Maryland DMV. "How can we help aging drivers remain safe drivers as long as possible? Help them understand there are important skills they need for driving, that there are higher risks because of health issues, ands that the will be a time to transition from driving at some time in your life."

Researchers say we are going to outlive our driving years by about a decade.

Marla Berg Weger of the University of St. Louis talked about initiatives in the state of Missouri, where the Department of Transportation works with the academic community. Their slogan is "Arrive alive after 65."

"Maintaining mobility is the central issue," she said. "We wanted a positive approach to the piece and show respect to the population."

The Missouri program aims to empower older adults with the freedom to travel to valued destinations - whether they are driving or taking public transportation. The state is working on designing roadways and systems that fulfill the needs of older adults. This includes the installation of rumble strips and median fences, which are important for all drivers, but especially older adults.

Education is also key: The state strives to increasing awareness of older driver safety issues among policy makers and the general public. The Missouri DOT printed up 10,000 posters and papered the state with mobility resource information, including a United Way 2-1-1 system to help seniors access transportation services. 

The panel recommended several resources for senior drivers and their families, beginning with the Automobile Association of America. Other resources include the National Center on Senior Transportation and CarFit, which helps older adults ascertain if their cars are really safe.

Thinkstock-200382827-Teen_DriverTeen Driving and Graduated Licensing

Getting your license has changed since I was a teen: Once I passed my test, my license to drive gave me all the rights that my parents enjoyed. Not so for my 17-year-old daughter, who is still undergoing a probationary period where she is not allowed any underage passengers and has a state-mandated driving curfew.

Description of GDL: Permit (mandatory, lengthy) to Intermediate (mandatory, lengthy) before a teen can obtain a new license.

The good news is that fatal crashes involving teen drivers have also declined: from 8,224 in 2000 to 4,161 in 2011. But do the new restrictions have something to do with that?

When you break it down by age, fatal crashes with 16 year old drivers have fallen 20%, and 6% for 17 year olds. But they have actually risen over 10% for 18- and 19-year-olds. Is this a sign that some teens are waiting until they are 18, thereby bypassing the driver's education requirement for younger teen drivers?

Hard to tell because the ongoing transition to GDL systems has scrambled the licensing data, and the statistics for different states are all over the place.

In California, it appears that many teens are delaying their licensure, as the number of licenses awarded to 17-year-olds drops dramatically and then spikes back up at 18.

This is a shame, as accident rates go down with driving experience for drivers of all ages, and in California, statistics show that new 16-year-old drivers (who have benefited from the long permit and practice period) start out having fewer accidents than those who are licensed outside of the GDL system. Simply put, California 18 and 19 year-olds who delay licensure crash more than their same-aged peers. However, this is true for novices of all ages compared with their same-age peers.

Nationally, graduated drivers licensing has resulted in 20-40% reduction in crashes of 16-year-olds, and 6-19% reducation of crashes of 17-year-olds. The Federal Highway Administration has noted the success of GDL programs and will soon be incenting states to implement GDL for ALL drivers under the age of 21.

Texting-while-driving-thinkstock-152165606New Research on Distracted Driving and the Car of the Future

Chris Monk of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that his agency would be issuing new driver distraction guidelines within the next few years. In the meantime, he presented a graph indicating that the  lowest risk driving behavior is using a hands-free cell phone... and you increase your risk of an accident 23 times by using that same phone to send a text message while driving.

Your risk increases with anything that takes your eyes off the road. It increases exponentially when you also need to use your hands. 

"If a task requires more eye off time than tuning a radio, it is unacceptable," he said.

NHTSA's Monk told us that the agency's new guidelines will be issued in three phases:

  • The first one will be on visual manual interfaces for integrated non-safety infotainment systems, such as Chrysler's Uconnect and Toyota's EnTune. It will also specify when drivers should be locked out of specific functions or features.
  • Phase 2 will be guidelines on portable after-market devices, such as GPS units or GM's OnStar FMV. 
  • Phase 3 will focus on voice based interfaces, like the one utilized by Ford's SYNC. 

Driving + text messaging = cognitive overload

University of Utah researcher Joel Cooper used this video to demonstrate how distracting texting truly is, even for pedestrians:

"You are either looking down at your phone or looking at the road," he said.

Cooper brought up the subject of "cognitive distraction," a problem to research because it is hard to observe. You can be looking at the road, but thinking about something other than your driving. 

"What happens when the city installs a new stop sign? We blow that stop sign for a little while until we remember it's there," he said. And when a driver is distracted, they fail to notice cues on the road.

Bryan Reimer, from MIT's AgeLab and New England University Transportation Center, doesn't think phones are the problem.

"It's more than technology," he said. "Maybe the problem is in US."

Reimer described three pillars of distraction: Visual, Manipulative and Cognitive. "No one pillar is prevalent. As you think of driver distraction components, you should think holistically," he said.

He noted how for the first century of automaking, the fundamental physical form of the cockpit stayed the same. But somewhere around 2000, we morphed to an aviation style cockpit that is infinitely more complex. 

"Humans are serial processors; we only do one thing at a time well," Reiner said. "We like to think we are multi-taskers, but we are not."

He pointed out that the mobile phone is actually a safety device, which is why it cannot be regulated out of the vehicle. For example, late at night on a deserted highway, a drowsy driver might be reluctant to pull over and sleep. In that instance, a phone conversation which keeps him awake would make him safer. In another context, it would be a distraction. 

"The same technology can have positive or negative attributes," he said. 

Reimer also pointed out that there is a link between phone use and risky driving: People who use the phone in their cars tend to be riskier drivers to begin with. "If you take away the phone, that driver will engagte in another risky acitvity," Reiner said. "The problem is not the phone, but the driver."

The interesting thing is that while use of mobile phones and other kinds of technology has exploded, distracted driving accidents are not keeping pace. One reason might be the many passive safety features now built into our vehicles.

Reiner said that there is currently no data to prove whether voice-activated technologies help. Do they just allow risky drivers to do more? We'll have to wait to find out.

What to Expect in the Car of the Future

Automakers are developing new and exciting ways of connecting cars with drivers' smartphones. Reimer described our vehicles as traveling wi-fi hotspots, with new driver apps and passenger infotainment options arriving every year. 

In the future, vehicles will even be able to communicate with each other through wi-fi. Researchers are developing safety apps based on this technology. This will be much more sophisticated than using simple sensors. Some systems will utilize vehicle to vehicle communication -- but there are plans on the books to create smart infrastructure, which would allow communication between vehicles and the actual roads they are driving on. 

The development of intelligent transportation system safety features could result in crash reduction through driver advisories and pre-crash warnings -- and countless lives saved.

Donna Schwartz Mills is a Los Angeles-based writer who also contributes to CBS Digital Local Los Angeles and her personal site,SoCal Mom. 



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