Car Culture: Crash stats offer food for thought

Phil Berg

Michigan is among 46 states that ban texting while driving, but accidents and deaths from distracted driving are “only increasing,” says a recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Fifteen percent of all crashes result from distracted driving, the NHTSA’s data show.

But among teenage drivers, that percentage is much higher, according to an earlier study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Its study showed 60 percent of crashes involving teens resulted from distracted driving. The AAA study, conducted by the University of North Carolina, analyzed 1,700 video clips of crashes involving teens. The study found that most teens just sat still during the last few seconds leading up to the crash.

The study sheds some light on what teens are doing just before they crash. I think it’s similar to what most of the adult drivers I know also do.

During 15 percent of the crashes, teens were interacting with other passengers; in 12 percent, they were using cellphones and texting, the study shows.

Ten percent of the crashes occurred while the teen driver was looking for something in the car, and 9 percent resulted from distractions outside the car. Singing and dancing was responsible for 8 percent of accidents, and grooming, 6 percent. Teens had their eyes off the road an average of 4.1 of the final six seconds leading up to the crash, the study reported.

This is what Michigan’s driver’s manual tells us to do: “Complete any personal grooming before you start driving or after you reach your destination. Designate a front-seat passenger to serve as a ‘copilot’ to help with maps or navigation systems. If you are driving alone, map out destinations in advance. Be familiar with equipment in the vehicle. Practice performing basic functions such as adjusting the temperature or radio settings without taking your eyes off the road. Preprogram your favorite radio stations for easy access and arrange tapes and CDs in an easy-to-reach spot.”

My first thought is that most of this is obsolete — I haven’t seen a map in anyone’s car for at least the past 10 years. But what I like about the state’s instructions are its support of practicing using controls without looking at them. Unfortunately, that’s nearly impossible with any touch-screen and other controls on almost all new cars.

I’ve been known to use my driving time to get things done. Using a hands-free phone and voice recorder, I’ve interviewed auto engineers and execs here and overseas while covering hundreds of miles of interstate highways. I used to hand-write letters to a girlfriend while droning across the fly-over states in my car, assisted by a pilot’s kneeboard as a writing surface. And, with a warning to not try this yourself, I managed once to eat an entire meal of lasagna crossing state highways in western Oklahoma and Kansas without dripping any shirt-killing tomato sauce, a feat I note with particular pride.

Some of the reasons I was comfortable doing productive things while driving: My car at the time was particularly slow and I plodded along in boredom at artificially low posted speed limits in those days; like most highway engineers may notice, I did such things only when there were long sight-lines down the road, clear traffic and long, straight distances; I could use all of the switches and controls on my car without looking at them, keeping my eyes on the road.

All of these productive things, however, are not something we should fear the driving population is rushing to do in coming autonomous cars, according to the report “Would Self-Driving Vehicles Increase Occupant Productivity?” released by the University of Michigan’s Sustainable Worldwide Transportation project in September.

The report concludes that although increased driver productivity is expected with autonomous cars, about 62 percent of Americans would not benefit from the freedom from driving. The report also says 36 percent of drivers would be so apprehensive riding in a self-driving car that they would watch the road, and 23 percent would refuse to ride in fully autonomous cars. Other notable concerns are the possibility of motion sickness from not watching the road, and since the average car trip is around 19 minutes, says the report, that’s too short a period for sleeping or working.

All of this makes me wonder: Do consumers really want all the advanced driver assist systems available on their cars, or do we all just want to spend less time in them?

Phil Berg is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.