Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Where the Buffalo Roam

There is an editorial in today's Star-Tribune in which a guy from Duluth complains about how bicyclists ride and how we need to relearn the rules of the road. Among the list of things we need to learn is to obey the speed limit. They must have damn fast cyclists up there; I would be so flattered to get a speeding ticket on my bike! We also don't signal or stop at red lights. I'm guessing he doesn't apply the same critique to motorists, who almost universally don't stop at stop signs if there's nobody coming, and thousands of whom have been caught running red lights in Minneapolis's first few weeks of trying out red light cameras.

Perhaps more cogent is an article from the New York Times a couple of days ago. This relates to cell phone usage in cars. A study from Australia shows that using hands-free cell phones while driving is no safer than using regular cell phones. Here are a couple of excerpts:

A study of Australian drivers found that those using cellphones were four times as likely to be involved in a serious crash regardless of whether they used hands-free devices like earpieces or speaker phones that have been perceived as making talking while driving safer.

The study, which is to appear in The British Medical Journal today, is the first of its kind to use actual crash data and cellphone records to show a link between talking on the phone and being seriously injured in an accident.

It is also the first to conclude definitively outside of a laboratory setting that holding a phone to the ear or talking through a hands-free device pose the same risks...

The new study examined the cellphone records of 744 drivers who had accidents in Perth, Australia, where drivers are required to use hands-free devices. Researchers estimated the time of the crash and looked at whether the driver used a cellphone in the minutes leading up to the accident. They then examined similar time intervals in the days before the crash to calculate the increased risk of using the cellphone.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group in Virginia, sent researchers to three hospitals in Perth during a two-year period from 2002 to 2004 to interview crash victims. The researchers asked several questions, including whether the driver had a hands-free device in the car and how often the device was used. To avoid having drivers incriminate themselves, the researchers did not ask if a hands-free apparatus was in use at the time of the crash. Rather, they asked drivers how often they used such a device and factored that into determining the devices' effectiveness.

"There is no safety advantage associated with switching to the types of hands-free devices that are commonly in use," the study concludes...

"There just doesn't seem to be any safety benefit by restricting drivers to hands-free phones," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It's the cognitive overload that sometimes occurs when you're engaging in a conversation that is the source of the distraction more so than the manipulation of the device."...

The Australian study notes not only that cellphone laws are hard to enforce but that more restrictive measures there appear unlikely. "While a possible solution in the future is to change mobile phones so they cannot be used when vehicles are in motion," the Australian study said, "the likelihood the industry would embrace such a change seems remote."

Paul A. Green, a scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said studies like this could exert influence on lawmakers. "They're most convinced by the tombstone count," he said.

So, in summary, using a cell phone makes you four times as likely to be involved in a serious crash than when you are not using a cell phone. A hands-free model has no safety advantage over a regular cell phone.

The common cell phone use among drivers does worry me. As a cyclist, I regard cars as buffalo, big and stupid and oblivious and dangerous and occasionally hostile, plus there's tons of them around. When you're in their habitat, you have to be wary of them because they can hurt you very easily without meaning to. When people are on their cell phones and driving, these buffalo get even more dangerous because they become even more oblivious than usual. Thankfully, they mostly crash into each other, but a few moments' inattention can quickly hurt or kill a cyclist or pedestrian and it will be written off as a tragic and regrettable accident, not a criminally negligent act. I really wish folks wouldn't use their cell phones while driving; I dont' want to get killed because of some inane conversation when you should be paying attention to driving.

On some other bike blogs the writers are rightly disturbed by the level of traffic fatalities each year, in the 42,000 - 43,000 range in recent years. It is striking how different the response was to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 where about 3,000 people were killed in 3 states in 3 hours to the annual killing of more than 42,000 people on our streets and highways. 9/11 has us at war, running massive deficits, surrendering civil liberties, jailing reporters. Spread the same number of random and innocent dead out across 50 states and 3 weeks and it goes unremarked. The New York Times did a long series after the attacks in which they ran photos of the 9/11 dead with short bios; it was a touching cross-section of society, highly-paid financial titans down to low-paid dishwashers, men and women, heroes and scoundrels. An intriguing series would be to run photos of everyone killed in auto accidents in the country for a month or a year; it would be a similarly eye-opening cross-section of society. I just hope that my photo wouldn't have to appear, or my family's, or yours. In the four years since the 9/11 attacks, we would have had to run about 170,000 photos.

Be careful out there.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

"As a cyclist, I regard cars as buffalo, big and stupid and oblivious and dangerous and occasionally hostile, plus there's tons of them around. When you're in their habitat, you have to be wary of them because they can hurt you very easily without meaning to."

I love it!