Trucks at Work

The driver matters … go figure!

It’s decidedly humorous, in a way, the sudden fuss being made over the dearth of good driving skills in this country – except, of course, that it’s one of the main reasons highway fatalities remain stubbornly high despite the introduction of all sorts of new safety technologies for vehicles larger and small.

For example, take the highway safety campaign sponsored by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) and the Auto Alliance that’s urging drivers of all ages – but especially younger ones – to use the most advanced safety feature of their vehicles while behind the wheel: themselves.

This is the third year of the “Decide to Drive” safe-driver initiative sponsored by the two groups, aimed in particular at reducing (if not eliminating) distracted driving behaviors.

“Understanding driver behavior is critical; the nature of communications has changed dramatically,” said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Auto Alliance. “For example, ten years ago, virtually no new cars came with integrated voice-driven communications. But today, that's becoming a common way of helping drivers keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.”

Why is that such a big deal? Well, just look at the numbers for starters. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2010, an estimated 3,092 people died in distraction-affected crashes. Then think about these factoids: today, about 234 million Americans ages 13 and older use mobile devices, with about 160 million Americans checking for updates on Facebook and 73% of American adults use their phones for texting.

“This communications and technology revolution has forever changed our way of life – whether we are at home, in the office, at school, on the school bus or in our cars,” Bainwol added. “The question isn't whether people will be connected; rather it's how and when.”

Here’s another factoid, one that’s extremely frightening from where I sit, according to a new in-car video study released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety: Teenage girls are twice as likely as teenage boys to use cell phones and other electronic devices while driving.

“Cell phones, texting, personal grooming, and reaching for things in the car were among the most common distracting activities found when cameras were put in new teen drivers' cars,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation. “This new study provides the best view we've had about how and when teens engage in distracted driving behaviors believed to contribute to making car crashes the leading cause of death for teenagers.”

Of course, I can hear the truck drivers now: heck, these are kids we’re talking about; this doesn’t affect me.

To which I say, “Oh yes it does.” Just look at crash research conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA): it shows that in fatal crashes where a “driver-related” factor is recorded, that factor is assigned to the driver of a passenger vehicle 80.5% of the time.

On top of that, the majority of fatal multi-vehicle crashes (59%) recorded in FMCSA's database resulted from a passenger vehicle rear-ending a truck, crossing the median and hitting a truck head on, or hitting a truck in some other way; less than 40% of such accidents resulted from a truck striking a car.

In short, it’s those distracted four-wheelers causing the large majority of truck-car crashes out there, and thus they need to wise up and start taking their driving duties more seriously.

Indeed, the AAA Foundation found that there’s a disturbingly wide prevalence of a “drive-as-I-say-don't-drive-as-I-do” mentality among automobile drivers that may actually be hindering highway safety efforts.

For example, distracted driving — specifically cell phone use and texting — remains a widespread problem, even though 94% of drivers consider texting while driving a serious threat, according to the group’s annual Traffic Safety Culture index.

Yet sore than one-third of drivers (35%) in AAA's poll admit to reading a text or email while driving in the past 30 days, and more than a quarter of drivers (26%) admit to sending a message while driving in the past month. Also, more than two-thirds of drivers (68%) report talking on their cell phone while driving in the past month, and nearly one in three (31%) say they do so fairly often or regularly.

“Such findings indicate that a false [sense of] comfort exists among many drivers who believe ‘it is the other guy behind the wheel’ yet admit to regularly engaging in potentially deadly behaviors like texting, driving while drunk or drowsy, excessive speeding, and red light running,” Kissinger noted.

Even passenger conduct is coming into play, too, as it is influencing driver behavior in some negative ways.

According to the AAA Foundation (again), potentially distracting activities significantly decreased when parents or other adults were present in the car. In contrast, loud conversation and horseplay were more than twice as likely to occur when multiple teen peers – instead of just one – were present.

These distractions are particularly concerning, as they are associated with the occurrence of crashes, other serious incidents (such as leaving the roadway), and “high g-force” events.

Indeed, drivers were six times as likely to have a serious incident when there was loud conversation in the vehicle, and were more than twice as likely to have a high g-force event when there was horseplay, the group determined.

Additionally, the distracted driving behaviors were linked with instances of teens looking away from the roadway, according to AA Foundation's research, with drivers were three times as likely to take their eyes off the road when using electronic devices, and were two-and-a-half times more likely to look away when engaged in other behaviors. On average, teen drivers using electronic devices took their eyes off the road for a full second longer than drivers not using such a device.

“A second may not seem like much, but at 65 mph a car travels the length of a basketball court in a single second,” Kissinger said. “That extra second can mean the difference between managed risk and tragedy for any driver.”

Indeed, each day, more than 15 people are killed and more than 1,200 people are injured in car crashes that were reported to involve a distracted driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In fact, the CDC also cites motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers, many of whom admit to engaging in distracting activities while driving. That’s why a lot of different organizations are trying to get drivers – but especially the younger set – to take far greater care when operating motor vehicles.

The UPS Foundation, for one – the charitable arm of United Parcel Service – created a national program back in 2009 to teach safe driving techniques to teens dubbed the “UPS Road Code.”

Developed in conjunction with the up with Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), it’s a program now in place in 36 U.S. cities and is largely based on the same safety training used by UPS' own drivers.

Taught by more than 150 UPS employees trained as volunteer instructors, UPS Road Code provides teens with four sessions of classroom-based instruction, as well as time "behind the wheel" of a virtual driving simulator, aimed at instilling critical safety principles each week, from basic instruction to the consequences of risky behaviors such as talking on cell phones, texting or drinking while driving.

Throughout the program, UPS noted that teens have a chance to practice what they've learned on the driving simulators, which feature a computer screen that serves as a windshield to the program's interactive animation, a steering wheel and life-like gas and brake pedals.

“It’s more than just a safe-driving program; it's about empowering teens to be ambassadors for safety and encouraging them to act as catalysts for driving change,” said Myron Gray, president-U.S. operations for UPS. “This [program] provides the information and the resources to help teens make our roads safer, starting with themselves and spreading to family, friends and beyond.”

Let’s just hope some of all that sticks in the still-developing cranium of younger drivers, at the very least, for how they conduct themselves behind the wheel on the road will playa huge role in helping reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities over time. 

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