The gift of lower gasoline prices will most likely put more motorists on the road this holiday season. Being with friends and family this time of year is an American tradition. Unfortunately, so are traffic deaths.
“It’s a great tragedy that more than 40,000 people die on our highways each year,” says John Mounce, director of the Center for Transportation Safety (CTS) at the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI). “It’s even more tragic when you realize that most of these deaths are preventable.”
In many cases, Mounce and other transportation safety professionals know the causes of these crashes, but curtailing the number of traffic deaths has been frustratingly slow. “We have made headway, especially when you consider all the vehicle miles traveled,” Mounce says. “But, I firmly believe we can do so much more. And it should start before we even start the engine.”
The Five Rules
Don’t Drink and Drive.
Borrowing a lyric from a popular Christmas song, “Although it’s been said many times, many ways,” many still have not gotten the message about drinking and driving. It’s hard to ignore the fact that alcohol plays a role in about one-third of all fatal crashes. “It’s a good rule that if you drink, don’t drive. Period,” says Maury Dennis, a TTI research scientist that has dedicated most of his career examining alcohol-related crashes and human behavior. “Even a small amount of alcohol can impact judgment, which could mean the difference between having a crash and being safe.” Dennis also points out that alcohol enhances fatigue and driving late at night increases the chance of a fatal crash with an intoxicated driver.
Drive the Speed Limit.
Although it’s common for many drivers to go over the speed limit, safety experts agree that speed kills. “Even a slight increase over the limit multiplies the time it takes to come to a stop,” says Senior Research Scientist Quinn Brackett of TTI. “If there were two words I would recommend this holiday season, and every day for that matter, it has to be ‘drive slower.’ Not only is it economical, it is so much safer.” Brackett says that 25 percent of the fatalities in 2007 were associated with speeding.
Driving Is a Full-Time Job.
Texting and talking on a cell phone while driving is becoming a leading cause for crashes. It’s in the headlines almost every day, yet, it continues to be a major problem. “Almost anything that happens inside your vehicle can take attention off the road,” says Susan Chrysler, manager of the Human Factors Group at TTI. “Recent studies show that cell phone use increases your chance of a crash by 400 percent. Driving is serious business and deserves our full attention.”
Buckle Up! It’s the Law.
Safety belts can be a life saver. Statistics show that safety belts increase your odds of surviving a serious crash by 45 percent. They also reduce the chance of serious injury by 50 percent. Safety belts increase those percentages for drivers and passengers of pickup trucks because of a truck’s propensity for rollovers. “IIt costs you nothing to wear a safety belt,” says Katie Womack, manager of the CTS Behavioral Research Group. “But if you don’t wear it, it could cost you everything.”
Young Drivers: Drive Aware!
Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers. Combine any of the above factors with inexperience, and it could be the recipe for tragedy. “Driving at night is the most risky for teens,” says Russell Henk, manager of TTI’s Teens in the Driver Seat Program. “Of course, distractions like cell phone use and a party atmosphere inside the vehicle is also extremely dangerous.” Teens in the Driver Seat is a peer-to-peer driver awareness program credited with helping save 125 teens between 2002 and 2006.
“Reducing traffic fatalities is our greatest concern at CTS,” says Mounce, who believes that changing driver behavior is the only real way to accomplish that goal. “Our great road system has given us all the freedom to travel just about anywhere we desire. We just need to get there safer.”
For more information about TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety, visit the center’s website at http://groups.tti.tamu.edu/cts/.