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For American Drivers, Old Dangers Continue To Claim Lives

Unbelted and Drunken Drivers Lead the NHTSA List of Safety Concerns

Media coverage of driver safety has focused recently on the dangers posed by car technology, from seemingly unexplainable unintended acceleration to problems with keyless ignitions to accident-producing electronic distractions.

But those things aren't at the top of the driver-danger list for David Strickland, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Instead, Strickland talks first about people driving without seatbelts. Or driving drunk. Or driving aggressively, tailgating and speeding, pushed by "all the ills of an impatient world," as Strickland puts it. In short, the most critical safety issues facing drivers have little to do with technology.

"Historically, the threats that faced the fleet are still with us," Strickland says. He talked to Edmunds in an early March interview that touched on several facets of the agency's safety agenda for 2011 and beyond. Strickland also is a featured speaker at Edmunds' upcoming safety conference, "Truly Safe? Debunking Myths and Crafting Effective Policies for Car Safety," May 23 and 24 in Washington.

In 2009, 33,808 people died in traffic accidents, according to the NHTSA. Although that's the lowest number since 1975, it's still too high, says Strickland, who has headed the traffic safety agency since January 2010.

The Last 15 Percent: Drivers Who Won't Belt Up
Thousands of those deaths could have been avoided, he says. One life-saver would be greater use of seatbelts. A 2010 NHTSA study says 85 percent of front-seat occupants use seatbelts, up from 58 percent in 1994. Nevertheless, more than 11,000 people who died in traffic accidents in 2009 weren't wearing them.

The NHTSA fatality data shows that many of those "unbelted occupants" are driving at night and represent a sizable number of highway deaths. People might not be buckling up at night because they think they're less likely to be spotted by police, the NHTSA believes. (In other words, they'd drive beltless in the daytime, too, if they thought they could get away with it.)

A 2009 NHTSA study found that well-publicized nighttime seatbelt checkpoint programs could improve seatbelt use.

Drunken and Distracted Driving: A Toll in the Thousands
Drunken driving continues to take thousands of lives, Strickland says. More than 7,000 drivers who died in 2009 had blood alcohol levels above the legal limit of 0.08, according to an analysis of NHTSA data by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That's more than a third of the 21,798 drivers who died that year. There's been an improvement since 1982, when nearly half the fatally injured drivers were legally drunk, but there's been little progress in reducing the number and proportion of fatally injured drunken drivers since the mid-1990s, according to the IIHS's data analysis.

Finally, there's distracted driving, which has been in the spotlight in part thanks to Strickland's boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made the issue a personal crusade. In 2009, 5,474 people died in crashes that were reported to have involved distracted driving, according to the NHTSA. Of those, about 18 percent could be attributed to a cell phone as a source of distraction.

The NHTSA is particularly interested in making sure its safety messages and programs reach a group of people that's prone to all three risky behaviors. That's men between 18 and 34 years old.

"Young men undertake riskier behaviors," Strickland says. "We are clearly focusing on everyone, but particularly on this part of the demographic." That's because young men are so frequently the people dying behind the wheel, he says.

The agency's "Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving" Web site and Facebook page are examples of that outreach. The NHTSA also recently sponsored a pre-St. Patrick's Day Twitter event and site, complete with a video game and a "Don't Drive Buzzed" e-card, to spread the word about the dangers of impaired driving.

A "Multithreaded" Approach to Safety
There's no one single route to reducing the number of deaths on the road, Strickland says. The U.S. needs to employ a "multithreaded, comprehensive program" that covers driver behavior, vehicle crashworthiness and the development of crash-avoidance technologies that can save lives, he says.

The NHTSA last year introduced a new crash testing program for cars. It's also focusing on testing and promoting the use of crash-avoidance technology, such as warnings for lane departures and forward collisions and electronic stability control systems or ESC. ESC is a technology that Strickland championed when he was on the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee and served as senior counsel for the Consumer Protection Subcommittee. Electronic stability control, which can prevent a rollover or a skid, will be required equipment by 2012 and has the potential of saving 10,000 lives a year, Strickland says.

The agency is also drafting voluntary guidelines for the auto industry to address whether some in-car technologies should be "interlocked," or unavailable for use while driving because they pose too much of a distraction hazard, Strickland says. For example, you might not be able to program a car's navigation system if you're driving above a certain speed, he says. The guidelines should be ready by the fall of 2011, Strickland says.

Longer-term NHTSA research will focus on the issue of "cognitive distraction," or how much of a mental load motorists can handle and still drive safely. The Department of Transportation's anti-distraction campaign says that "available research" shows hands-free technologies can still pose a cognitive distraction for drivers. Ford, for one, contends that "cognitive distraction plays less of a role in crashes and near-miss events than previously believed." Strickland says that if the NHTSA's research and data points to cognitive distraction as an issue, "we will take steps to ensure safety."

The Levers To Change Driver Behavior
Ultimately, though, safety first depends on an "attentive, responsible driver," he says.

"At the end of the day, that's your responsibility," Strickland says. "You're responsible for yourself and others." The government wants to support driver safety by recommending or mandating safety features, but the driving public can't rely on stability control, lane departure warnings or forward-collision alarms as its first line of defense, Strickland says.

To get drivers to change their own behavior for greater safety, three elements come into play, Strickland says: "strong laws, great enforcement and great education through high-visibility programs." The real turning point comes when a society polices itself, he says.

"There's only so many times a cop can pull you over," Strickland says. It's power of a society to influence its own members that "really can move the numbers" toward greater safety compliance, he says.

It worked with drunk driving, Strickland says. "In the 1980s, it still seemed OK to have a couple after work and drive," he says. "We've changed that ethos. It's still a problem with hard-core drinkers, but we've done great with casual drinkers. We've changed the social mores."

Now, if people decide to have a drink, they're much more likely to make a plan for getting home that doesn't include driving impaired, he says. "People say, 'I'll make other plans. I'll get a cab, or have a designated driver, or take the bus or walk home.' That's the power of the behavioral program."

It also continues to work with seatbelt use. He gives the example of children who learn in school that everyone in the car should buckle up. And so kids harangue their parents until they put on their seatbelts, too.

The NHTSA hopes that same approach will work with such dangerous behaviors as texting behind the wheel. "Everyone recognizes that texting while driving is wrong. It's bad — except when I choose to do it, because I do it well, right? Everyone else does it badly," Strickland says, laughing. The goal is to turn texting into something that's seen as a societal evil "so that someone will say something, do something and intervene."