The Washington Examiner editorial board (now under the direction of Mark Tapscott) points to Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study which found that eighty percent of vehicular crashes occur when drivers are “distracted by things like talking on cell phones, applying makeup and consuming fast food.” This study certainly comports with my personal observations; indeed, it seems that almost all the drivers I witness making stupid mistakes are yapping on the phone.
The Examiner argues that the study, embraced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, should provide a wake-up call for those in charge of highway safety.
The most obvious starting point for that rethinking is the priorities that govern how state troopers and local police in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia approach traffic safety. For decades, their work has been governed by the conventional wisdom that excessive speed is the biggest threat to safe travel on area roads and should thus be the primary focus of traffic enforcement. That speed enforcement also provides a steady revenue stream for local and state governments has encouraged a disproportionate focus on catching speeders.
The NHTSA/VTTI study demonstrates the flaw in this traditional emphasis on speed enforcement. Instead of sitting beside the road, radar gun in hand waiting to snare morning commuters who dare to go 72 mph instead of 55 mph, troopers and patrol officers should be actually cruising in traffic looking for distracted drivers. Spending more time in traffic would have the ancillary benefit of increasing enforcement visibility, which is a factor long thought to be among the most important in encouraging compliance with traffic laws.
I have long thought that patroling the roads was a better use of Troopers. Indeed, I would much prefer to see them looking out for Left Lane Bandits (people going 10 mph below the speed limit yet insisting on staying in the passing lane–often while on a cell phone), reckless drivers, and the like.
The problem, however, is that traffic law enforcement long ago ceased to be motivated primarily by public safety. The point of radar guns, red light cameras, and all the rest is revenue generation. Given that those ticketed with speeding almost always just mail in their ever-heftier fines, sitting by the roadside with a radar gun is simply a more efficient use of the officers’ time from a revenue maximization standpoint. Discovering distracted drivers and then proving that they were indeed distracted in a court of law would be much more difficult.
There are implications in the study for automakers, too. Those multi-button instrument panels that require drivers to take their eyes off the road simply to change stations on the stereo are clearly a significant safety problem. Ditto on the proliferation of satellite navigation screens, power points for laptops and plug-ins for iPods.
Quite right. Many vehicles now put sound system controls and the like on the steering wheel, an innovation that should be adopted industry wide. But navigation systems and a proliferation of entertainment options are likely to stay with us and, indeed, be more common as they move from luxury add-ons to standard features. Perhaps something along the lines of a heads-up display, common in aircraft and other military systems, could be adopted for private transportation.