By Jonathon Krall - crossposted from Alexandria News
Based on the latest report from the League of American Bicyclists, distracted driving is now endemic, so much so that the entire conversation about bicycles and cars on the roads may need to change. Being hit from behind, once considered rare, is now a common cause of car-on-bicycle fatalities. Cities, such as New York, are answering this threat with “vision zero” policies that aim to design fatalities out of our roadways, despite human error.
Previously, intersection collisions were considered most common and were a matter of drivers entering an intersection too fast to look in all directions. According to the LAB report, entitled “Every Bicyclist Counts", the biggest problem may instead be distracted drivers failing to look in any direction at all.
To me, the most interesting studies are those using heavily instrumented cars, where even the driver is monitored. After a period of exemplary behavior, drivers get used to being monitored and their mischief is recorded in detail. The result? People who use phones take their eyes off the road to manipulate the phone, look for the phone, or look at screen. This comes from a 2013 Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study: “Text messaging increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by two times and resulted in drivers taking their eyes off the road for an average of 23 seconds total.” At 60 mph, 23 seconds is over 1/3 of a mile.
Virginia Tech reports that “even portable hands-free and vehicle-integrated hands-free cell phone use involved visual-manual tasks at least half of the time, which is associated with a greater crash risk.” The main problem isn't so much talking on phone as paying attention to the phone itself.
A “landmark study” by the American Automobile Association Foundation went further, monitoring the level of driver brain activity. Their finding? Distractions can be cognitive rather than visual, leading to dangerously inattentive driving. “Of all the tasks assessed, driver interaction with speech-to-text systems (such as the infotainment and other voice-activated tech offerings in many new vehicles) creates the highest level of cognitive distraction.” The AAAF goes on to say that “By demonstrating that mentally-distracted drivers miss visual cues, have slower reaction times, and even exhibit a sort of tunnel vision, this study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that 'hands-free' doesn’t mean risk free.” Anyone who has tussled with a voice-recognition system knows how frustrating they can be. In a car, they can be dangerous.
“Hit from behind” crashes should never happen if drivers are looking where they are going. Better reporting, such as straightforward accounts of all local traffic fatalities, would raise public awareness. The public, however, must surely have gotten the message by now. Education, it seems, cannot trump human nature.
With citizen input, Alexandria city staff are currently updating the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan. At the February 18 meeting of the Transportation Commission, city staff reported key findings and recommendations, one of which was that “Staff should also conduct additional review of the Vision Zero policy from other jurisdictions to see if it is applicable in Alexandria."
Vision Zero is an increasingly-popular policy requiring road to be specifically designed to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. A simple example is a rural road with a barrier along the centerline, making passing impossible except in designated zones, where the road widens. In places where pedestrians or bicycles are present, vision-zero requires either physical barriers or design speeds below 20 miles per hour, a speed at which the pedestrian survival rate exceeds 90%.
While relatively new in the USA, the Swedish parliament decided, in 1997, to reach zero by 2020. As a result, traffic fatalities fell from seven per 100,000 people to less than three, despite a significant increase in traffic volume. In the USA, that number is greater than 11. By recognizing and designing for the inevitable fallibility of drivers, we can both be human and protect humans.
The next meeting of the Ad Hoc Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan Advisory Committee Meeting is scheduled for August 12, 2015. Citizens are invited to participate.