Technology key to improving traffic safety

U.S. and Swedish transportation officials are strong advocates for “active” safety technologies on both the road and vehicles as the key to substantially reducing traffic deaths and injuries around the world

WASHINGTON, DC. U.S. and Swedish transportation officials are strong advocates for “active” safety technologies on both the road and vehicles as the key to substantially reducing traffic deaths and injuries around the world.

Transportation experts from the U.S. and Sweden voiced that position during a special seminar called “The Safe Way Home” in the nation’s capitol, an event sponsored and hosted by the Swedish embassy.

“The definition of a ‘safe’ transportation system is one used by people that does not create deaths and injuries by using it,” said Claes Tingvall, director of traffic safety for the Swedish Road Administration. “We have to try and find solutions that eliminate the problems leading to deaths and injuries– not just reduce the risks.”

Part of the solution is to change how roadways are constructed, he said. For example, from 1998 to 2006, Tingvall noted that the number of Swedish roads divided by a physical barrier that separate traffic flows increased from 22% to 38%. This corresponds to an 80% drop in traffic fatalities over the same period.

The other piece of the puzzle, he said, is active safety systems. He pointed to electronic stability control (ESC) as an example: In 2003, 15% of Swedish cars were equipped with ESC. By 2006, that number had climbed to 91%.

Another device is speed limiters that restrict commercial trucks used in Sweden and throughout Europe from traveling above 90 km per hour (56 mph), not only making highways safer but saving fleets fuel as well, Tingvall said.

Jeffrey Lindley, associate administrator for safety at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) added that there’s no one single silver bullet technology solution that can improve safety overnight. However, a series of systems designed to increase seat belt usage above 90%, alert vehicle operators to drowsy or impaired driving, and reduce vehicle speed can make a big dent in traffic fatality and injury numbers.

“For example, speeding is a factor in over one-third of all traffic fatalities,” he said. “Setting reasonable speed limits and enforcing them with automated technologies could really help.”

The trick however, added Rolf Rising, director of business analysis and development for the Invest in Sweden agency, is to make “intelligent” vehicle safety systems both dependable and inexpensive. “Collision avoidance platforms that involve satellite and cellular communication links are going to require a lot of electronic capability,” he said. “Those electronic systems need to be reliable, rugged, and can’t cost too much or they won’t be adopted.”

The key is getting technology on board a vehicle to reduce driver errors that lead to crashes, noted Joseph Kanianthra, associate administrator for vehicle safety research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“We need to first look at what drivers do behind the wheel, for many events precede a crash,” he said. “The question is: where can technology make a difference in helping change those events so a crash does not occur?”

Kanianthra said different forms of “driver error” – everything from recognition mistakes, erratic maneuvering, drunkenness, fatigue, and decision-making errors – represent 90% of the causes behind vehicle accidents, according to NHTSA’s research. “Total safety is possible if we can put technology into the hands of the driver that improves their effectiveness.”

For commercial trucks, that includes offering everything from stability and rollover protection systems to telematics systems geared to provide fleet managers with driver behavior data, said Scott Kress, vp-sales and marketing for Volvo Trucks North America.

“So much of our focus these days is on active safety – the ability to avoid accidents or to lessen their severity,” he said. “For example, our Volvo Link Sentry two-way satellite communication system– which will be standard on all Volvo trucks later this year– gives fleet managers detailed information about vehicle operations. This includes the ability to see which drivers need additional coaching for safe driving techniques by alerting managers to events such as hard braking or ABS [antilock brake system] activation.”

To comment on this article, write to Sean Kilcarr at [email protected].

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