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Status Report, Vol. 45, No. 8 | August 21, 2010 Subscribe

Sidetracked: Hot-button issues divert resources

So big and relentless is the toll from motor vehicle crashes — upward of 100 deaths per day and many more injuries on U.S. roads alone — that the solutions need to be big, too. Think vehicle designs that control crash energy and keep it from harming occupants. Think front and side airbags for cushioning and safety belts plus enough enforcement to boost buckle-up rates. These solutions collectively save tens of thousands of lives.

Developing new ways to reduce crashes and protect large numbers of people is the essential work in the field of highway safety. Yet too often this work gets sidetracked by one or another issue du jour. Vehicle defects, for example, have to be addressed, but it's counterproductive to confuse individual defects with bigger highway safety problems that cause thousands of deaths each year.

Recent issues du jour include the Toyota safety defects that alarmed millions of drivers. Another issue that's still usurping public attention is phoning while driving. These are real problems that have to be addressed. But you'd think from the media coverage, congressional hearings, and the U.S. Department of Transportation's focus in recent months that separating drivers from their phones would all but solve the public heath problem of crash deaths and injuries. It won't.

"The hypervisibility of these issues diverts attention from initiatives that have far greater potential to save lives," Institute president Adrian Lund points out. "We need to look for the next big idea like airbags and get it done."

Toyota sidetrack

Earlier this year the media were reporting case after case of unintended acceleration and loss of control. To the motorists involved in these events, the problems were terrifying. To anyone with a Toyota identified as subject to the problem, it was worrisome. This is why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Office of Defects Investigation launched several inquiries.

"Toyota owners are fortunate that federal procedures to address defects are well established and generally lead to solutions," Lund says. "NHTSA may need additional resources to address some of the advanced electronics in newer vehicles, but let's keep some perspective. Defects aren't rare — NHTSA listed about 70 new ones in the month of June alone — and federal investigators handle them routinely. Meanwhile, huge highway safety problems fail to attract the same degree of public interest or concern that Toyota does."

For example, nobody's clamoring for lower speed limits or for speed cameras to enforce whatever limits are posted, even though going fast contributes to something like one-third of all deaths in crashes. Study after study conducted on U.S. roads and elsewhere confirms the safety benefits of posting lower limits (see "Faster travel and the price we pay," Nov. 22, 2003). Motorists respond by slowing down. The result is a saving of lives.

Yet policymakers are going the other way, raising speed limits to 70, 75, and even 80 mph (see Status Report special issue: speed, Jan. 31, 2008). The predictable result is the loss of exponentially more lives than a defect would cause.

Another way to save lives is to use red light cameras. More than 750 people die every year and an estimated 137,000 are injured in crashes that involve running signal lights (see Status Report special issue: one day of crashes, May 12, 2007). These losses aren't raising public concern, however, and the media mainly cover the issue when signal violators caught on camera complain about invasion of their privacy.

Roundabouts would solve red light running at many intersections by removing signal lights altogether (see "Roundabouts can be even safer with easy changes," June 9, 2008; on the web at iihs.org). Some U.S. communities embrace this approach, but roundabouts aren't being adopted at many locations where they could make a difference in terms of traffic flow, fuel consumption, and safety.

"There's nothing rational about the way we set highway safety priorities," Lund observes. "We know from studies which policies make a big difference, but the media don't cover them and public interest is ho-hum. Contrast this with response to Toyota defects. It's as if there has to be a villain in a black hat to drum up enough support to get anything done. It's an irrational way to go about highway safety policy."

Cellphone sidetrack

The risk of phoning while driving is substantial (see "Using a phone while driving raises the risk of a crash involving injuries," July 16, 2005), and it's likely that texting represents a similar hazard. Policymakers are right to address these issues, but they've gone off on a sidetrack by focusing solely on laws prohibiting phone use. Such laws reduce phoning (see Status Report special issue: phoning while driving, Feb. 27, 2010), but there's no effect on crashes. In jurisdictions where driver use of hand-held phones has been banned, crash patterns have held steady.

"Reducing crashes and saving lives is what highway safety is all about," Lund notes, "and by this essential measure the benefits of hand-held cellphone bans are nil."

Policymakers aren't listening. In state after state they're enacting new bans, and no less than the U.S. Department of Transportation says it's "irresponsible to suggest" that these bans "have zero effect on the number of crashes."

Lund counters that "we're not suggesting anything. This is a data-driven finding, and the data show the same thing across every state we've studied — no reductions in crashes after banning driver phone use."

Elsewhere in the government, policymakers heed data-driven findings. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, requires drug manufacturers to prove the effectiveness of their products before doctors can prescribe them and consumers can take them. Traffic safety laws can't be subjected to similar testing before enactment, but when evidence indicates that laws like phone bans don't work it makes sense to look for another prescription.

Finding that bans don't cut crashes isn't the same as finding no risk associated with phone use while driving. The risk is well established. It's just that banning this practice doesn't reduce crash risk. It doesn't recognize that using a cellphone is one among many driver distractions. If one source of distraction is banned and drivers respond by picking up on another, equally risky distraction, then crashes won't go down. This could be why bans reduce phoning but not collisions.

A better prescription for distracted driving might be crash avoidance features. These don't care whether motorists get distracted by phone use, radio dials, roadside signs, or something else. The features have the potential to help all drivers avoid crashes in all sorts of situations (see "New estimates of benefits of crash avoidance features on passenger vehicles," May 20, 2010).

"Why isn't the U.S. Department of Transportation holding summits about crash avoidance features? Or about speeding or red light running?" Lund asks. "Instead the department held a summit last year on phone use while driving and is preparing to convene another one next month. The purpose seems to be to agree that driver phone use is bad and should be banned. But why not focus on measures like crash avoidance features, with the potential to save more lives in more situations? This is what the department should be doing instead of summiting on phones."

Sidetracking isn't new

Phone use isn't the first issue to sidetrack highway safety policymakers. Nor are Toyota defects. Remember the brouhaha a decade or so ago about Firestone tire failures on Ford vehicles, particularly Explorers? The fear was that tire tread separation increases the risk of rolling over.

"Once again, there was a villain, or two in this case, the automaker and the tire manufacturer," Lund says, "so a frenzy took over. Instead of simply allowing NHTSA to investigate this problem and come up with a fix, it morphed into a scandal."

While NHTSA and most of the public was focusing on the perceived scandal, resources were diverted from bigger highway safety problems. These included elevated rates of rollover crash deaths in SUVs, not just Ford Explorers, regardless of their tires.

"NHTSA needed to be focusing on stronger vehicle roofs and occupant protection in rollover crashes more than on tire reliability," Lund adds. He concedes that "it's easy to get diverted from these big issues when there's a ready villain, and the media hammer away at it. This happens over and over again."

Getting back on track

Deaths occur in such a wide range of crashes from pedestrian impacts to collisions with tractor-trailers that no single policy or program can have a defining effect. It takes a range of solutions, not a single answer to a single issue.

"Priority belongs to measures that address the biggest highway safety issues and promise to save the most lives," Lund concludes. "This doesn't mean ignoring problems like specific defects in specific models. It means fixing those defects via established channels without mistaking the fixes for meaningful answers to the overall problem of crash deaths and injuries. Making a dent in a problem as big as this one calls for bigger ideas that take a lot of our time and our resources, plus a steady focus."

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