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Rear-end crashes and incidents of vehicles driving off local roadways that cause moderate to significant damage, occasional injuries — or worse — represent about half of the collisions Newtown Police have responded to in recent years.
But how many of these incidents could be attributed to distracted driving — particularly where the operator was distracted by a smartphone or other mobile device?
That answer may be elusive according to Neil Chaudhary, PhD, a local resident and traffic safety scientist, who was prompted to look at local stats after the release of a new distracted driving study produced by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The reason being for that elusiveness is that investigating law enforcement officers typically cannot attribute moderate to significant crashes to distracted driving unless they witness the incident and the operator apparently engaged in something other than concentrating on their driving, or witness accounts bear that out as part of a post-crash investigation, Dr Chaudhary said.
Numerous previous studies conducted with driving simulators and on-road driving suggest that using a cellphone while driving, particularly visual-manual interaction, can significantly impair driving performance.
The latest study, which was published this week, was markedly different and very informative, Dr Chaudhary said, because it involved placing scientific data gathering instruments and cameras inside “thousands of vehicles,” gathering real-life, real time information, including many actual collisions.
This study investigated the relationship between cellphone use and crash risk using data from the Second Strategic Highway Research Program Naturalistic Driving Study, which included data from a sample of 3,593 drivers whose driving was monitored using in-vehicle video and other data collection equipment for a period of several months between October 2010 and December 2013.
“It’s a good study,” Dr Chaudhary said. “They used instrumented vehicle data from Virginia Tech, which has a dedicated program to vehicle safety.”
The relationship between driver cellphone use and crash involvement was quantified using a case-crossover study design in which a driver’s cellphone use in the six seconds immediately prior to the crash was compared with the same driver’s cellphone use in up to four six-second segments of ordinary driving under similar conditions (time of day, weather, locality, lighting, and speed) within the three months prior to the crash.
Cellphone use, crash involvement, and traffic and environmental conditions were assessed using in-vehicle video. The final study sample included 566 severe, moderate, and minor crashes matched to 1,749 segments of ordinary driving.
To translate: drivers who text or surf the internet on smartphones are two to eight times likely to be involved in a crash; and those who simply talk and drive increase their risk up to four times. This latest foundation report updates previous research, some of which is now more than ten years old and dates back to the days when drivers used simple flip phones to only make calls.
Today, those flip phones’ modern, high-tech “cousins” are changing the way drivers interact with devices and ultimate affect roadway safety.
“They actually used near crash algorithms when there is change in inertia and tilt and other things to determine that something happened, and then they jump to the video, which became the final data published in this study,” Dr Chaudhary said of the data gathering methods.
“What might be missing are correlations to distracted driving events where a driver may blow through a red light, or almost hit a pedestrian, and they have no clue it even happened because the cognitive blindness or distraction of being engaged — quite possibly with their cellphones,” he said. “There is no change in inertia or anything to signal a near-crash may have occurred. That just leads me to believe the problem is worse than these data suggest. And who is volunteering to participate? People who know they are risky drivers may not be inclined to volunteer to have this technology and these cameras installed into their own cars.”
Unfortunately, you don’t know what you don’t know.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 3,450 distraction-related deaths occurred in 2016, the latest figures on file. In Connecticut during that same year, there were 12 fatalities and more than 3,200 injuries, according to the UConn Crash Data Repository, a database that provides crash information collected by state and local police.
Dr Chaudhary approached his deeper dive into Newtown specific data with the understanding that “distracted driving tends to increase rear-end crashes and run off road crashes.”
Coincidentally, Dr Chaudhary and his colleagues at Trumbull’s Preusser Research Group (PRG) themselves used rear-end collisions for estimates of distracted driving. “That was without this data, so it was good to see we picked the right kind of crashes to use,” he said. “And we did not use the run off road stats, so this study is going to have us add this to our proxy for distracted driving crashes.”
In reviewing the last three years of crash data available for Newtown from the UConn Repository, he found that more than half of crashes fall into these two categories. Dr Chaudhary even stripped out rear-end and off the road crashes that occurred on Interstate 84 in Newtown, to get an exclusive picture of what was happening only on local town roads.
“Most of these crashes are property damage only — most did not result in injuries — 83 percent,” he said. “And the crashes I looked at generated $2,000 in damage or more, so the idea that there are a lot more of these kinds of crashes causing less damage are also happening.”
Anyone who regularly drives through town will not be surprised that the bulk of these crashes occurred on South Main Street (Route 25), along the local stretch of Route 34, and on Church Hill Road. A significant number of curb cuts or access to residential and especially commercial properties likely contribute to operators slowing quickly to turn, or pulling out in front of oncoming vehicles and being struck or causing those vehicles to drive off the road.
Collateral Costs, Risks
“Any task that requires a driver to take their eyes or attention off the road is a distraction,” says AAA Northeast’s Senior Vice President-Public Affairs Lloyd Albert. He urged drivers to only use these technologies for legitimate emergencies or urgent driving-related matters.
However, Americans live in a “Do As I Say; Not As I Do” society: Although more than two in three drivers personally consider it is unacceptable to talk on cellphones while driving, they do so anyway, reports the Foundation’s Traffic Safety Culture Index, which measures public attitudes of driving safety issues. Yet, one in three drivers says they talk on their phones while driving regularly.
Data for the current AAA study were collected continuously while the study subjects’ vehicles were being driven. Data were collected across six study sites in the United States to ensure geographical diversity: Bloomington, Ind.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Durham, N.C.; Seattle, Wash.; State College, Penn.; and Tampa, Fla.
The study recruited an approximately equal mix of male and female drivers from varying age groups, different socioeconomic strata, and different geographical areas across the United States. Participants drove a variety of light-vehicle types, including cars, sport utility vehicles, and vans.
The driver sample was designed to be generally representative of the driving population, with the exception that younger and older drivers were over-recruited due to their status as high-risk populations in the context of motor vehicle crashes.
Dr Chaudhary said that the majority of the local crashes similar to those logged in the AAA study are referred to as “nuisance crashes,” because the police, and locally fire or ambulance responders are often called out, generating expense to taxpayers and putting the responders at a heightened risk while they are speeding to calls where the extent of injury or damage may have been either initially misreported or exaggerated.
“It’s not just the people involved who are affected,” Dr Chaudhary said. “There is an expense related to sending police and responders out, and they can also cause other crashes when traffic is suddenly stopped. We know how it gets when there is even a minor traffic interruption on Route 25 during peak travel times. Traffic can back up quite a distance.”
Learn more about the Preusser Research Group at preussergroup.com.