Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Causes Car Accidents?

     "Speeding doesn't cause accidents," pronounced B's older son at the dinner table the other night, "distractions cause accidents." And he knows what he's talking about. Because he's 24.

     I guess I don't have to tell you, he likes to speed, and has been tagged with two or three speeding tickets in his relatively short driving life. Every one of them, according to him, a terrible injustice. And in every case, as usual, the cops agreed to plead it down to a cellphone violation or seatbelt charge, so he wouldn't get any points.

     One thing he knows is that the week before his high school graduation, a classmate of his lost control of his car out on the main road, less than a mile from our house. The boy ran into a utility pole and killed himself. I was recently reminded of that accident because I saw one of those flowered wreaths perched on the side of the road -- presumably to mark the anniversary of the boy's death.

     The boy hadn't been drinking. He was alone in the car. The cause of the accident? He was distracted, adjusting his music. But the boy was also speeding. And because he was speeding, he didn't have time to recover when he started drifting off the road. And because he was speeding, the car flipped over and killed him.

      What causes accidents? The National Motorists Association, an organization devoted to helping you beat your speeding tickets, agrees with B's son -- it's driver distraction, not speed. The lobbyists for the road construction industry commission studies "proving" that the problem is poor road maintenance. But according to most objective sources, while drivers tend to blame poor road conditions or else other people's mistakes for their accidents, the fact is that excessive speed or aggressive driver behavior is the primary cause in the majority of cases.

     A few days ago I drove down to JFK airport to pick up B and her younger son, returning from San Francisco. I left early in the morning. I was on an older highway, where the speed limit is 55. I was doing 60. Most of the traffic passed me by.

     There's a bridge over a reservoir that's undergoing construction, where the highway squeezes down to two lanes and the lanes are narrow with no shoulder. The speed limit on the bridge is posted at 40 mph. I was crossing the bridge at 50, when I saw a big SUV closing up behind me. Please wait, I pleaded silently, until we get off the bridge before you pass me. No chance. The SUV pulled up, tailed me for a few seconds, eased out to the passing lane. Then, as I cringed, he brushed by me only a couple of inches from the left side of my car.

     As I approached the city, the SUVs passed me by in packs -- they were all going 15 mph over the speed limit, rushing off to do whatever these people were doing on Saturday morning.

     The cars that bothered me the most were the ones that drifted over into my lane as they passed -- were they being aggressive, trying to run me off the road, or were they just oblivious, not knowing they were crowding me out? Either way, they forced me over to the right side of the road, my wheel edging the shoulder.

     On my way down to the airport, I passed the site of a tragic accident that occurred at the end of April. A 45-year-old woman was driving a Honda Pilot, with seven people in the car -- her sister, two grandparents, and three girls, a 10-year-old, a 7-year old- and a 3-year old. It was on a Sunday afternoon. The weather was fine. The passengers were all wearing seatbelts.

     The driver was traveling in the left-hand lane, and suddenly for some reason bounced up onto the center divider. The impact damaged her front left tire, causing the car to careen across three lanes of traffic. The Pilot went over a four-foot fence and plummeted into a ravine below. All seven people died.

     I'm sure this woman was a very nice lady -- after all, she was carting her family around to wherever they wanted to go. But she was going too fast. The investigation concluded she was traveling in the passing lane at 68 or 69 mph, in a 50 mph zone. No doubt, with seven people in the car, she got distracted. And that section of the road is not in very good condition. (Duh . . . that's why the speed limit is 50.) But there's no room for error when you're doing 68 or 69 mph. And so, however nice a lady she was, she killed herself and six people in her family.

     Why do people speed? A very few people are actually in a hurry. Commuters tend to speed. A lot of people will do anything to shave off 2 or 3 minutes from their 45-minute commute. Younger people speed because they think it's cool. A lot of people speed because they think they're better drivers than other people on the road, and so they feel it's okay for them to go fast. Speed limits are for suckers, not for them. SUV drivers speed because they think their big cars rule the road, and everyone should get out of their way, and besides even if they do crash they won't get hurt.

     I guess there are a hundred reasons to speed. It doesn't really seem that dangerous. Men boast about their speed, brag about how fast they can make a trip. Women joke about their lead foot. There's something about being surrounded by 3000 or 4000 pounds of metal and plastic that makes you feel impervious to the laws of physics, that puts you in a safety bubble where you think nothing can go wrong.

     And then there's the video game phenomenon. People race cars on the screen, make all kinds of amazing maneuvers, and nothing bad ever happens. So how is a car any different?

     One survey reported in Police Chief Magazine showed that most people would support increasing the speed limit on the interstate from its current 65 mph. About 22% wanted to increase it to 70; and amazingly (to me at least) 43% said it should be raised to 75 mph.

     Because after all, speed doesn't kill. It's the distractions that cause the accidents. Or the road conditions. Or whatever. It's always somebody else's fault.

     And, you know, that's a gamble that most people win . . . until they don't.

     P. S.  Aside from speed, AAA has an article in its current Car & Driver magazine about the riskiest times to drive. What's the deadliest month? Hint: It does not involve snow or ice.


Barb said...

Hmm. I'm a person who goes fast, and is probably going to agree with B's son on this one-within limits. I'd suggest that in the us when don't teach folks to pass on the left and drive on the right, for one. I'd also suggest that unlike other countries we dont teach people to drie properly-in all conditions, under all circumstances. In other words, its not that you speed, but where you speed. and what you are doing while you speed. I drink but I never eat when driving, I dont turn my head and talk to the back seat I dont scan my radio. I drive. It's not that I dont consider speeding to be an issue-especially in urban environments. but cell phones, trucks, and alcohol are all huge issues. and its not only speed that kills.

But remember, I lived and drove on germany autobahns for seven years, so my perspective is probably a bit skewed

Kay Dennison said...

I feel the same way -- my need for speed died decades ago and driving for me is about getting where I need to go in one piece.

Janette said...

The Germans take their driving more seriously.
1. A license from school to test costs about €2000. Can you see that price tag on a us license? You can apply at 17. It is a lifetime license- but of you lose it? You are in for a long battle to get it back.

2. Yes you can drive fast on autobahn, but don't go over the speed limit in town. The fines are hefty. There are many small towns and their fences are next to the road (think midevil stone). Lose control? Those stones hurt.

3. If the police officer steps out on the road with his little sign you have to do what he says...there is no such thing as police brutality...they can be as brutal as they wish.

4. Taxes, insurance and GAS are far more expensive. They Tend to be far mor thrifty than US citizens. Why burn up a beautiful car in a place that cannot accomodate ate the speed anyway?

I actually learned not to speed in Germany. People who speed tend to not enjoy the countryside and are always looking for cops. How fun is that?

Arkansas Patti said...

Well thought out post per usual. My view is that accidents are most likely caused by distractions or just inattention but it is speed that turns them into fatal ones.

June said...

One good lasting effect of my former career as a drunk is that I hardly ever drive faster than the posted speed limit. I started that habit so I would get stopped and caught driving with a couple of drinks in me and it stuck with me when I stopped drinking.
A couple of years ago a local woman died when she drove her minivan under the back of a tractor trailer truck. I was flummoxed. How do you do that? Everybody I asked said, "Oh, she was probably fiddling with the radio, or putting on lipstick..." But how do you DRIVE UNDERNEATH ANOTHER VEHICLE unless you're going so fast that when you look up from changing the radio station, you're dead?

Stephen Hayes said...

Our son is 32 and an excellent driver, but he had an accident on his motorcycle a few weeks ago. Fortunately, he was only going twenty miles an hour but he got scraped up pretty good. Fortunately, he was wearing the proper gear and helmet. Accidents can happen even when no one is doing anything wrong, so you really need to have your eyes open out there.

June said...

I see, in this belated review, that I left out a crucial word in my comment.
My second sentence should, of course, read: " I started that habit so I would NOT get..."

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Excellent post, Tom, with such important information. I shudder at times when people drive so fast and pass with such abandon on the miles of two-lane country roads around here. And, yes, there are decorated crosses all over the place. I'm sure speed is the reason.

Retired Syd said...

I give speeders a wide berth (and hold my breath a lot). But one thing I will never be able to control my blood pressure on is people that tailgate me. Especially SUV's.

Honestly, you people--either pass me or get off my tail. If you are behind me, whether 5 feet of 5 inches, I'M STILL GOING TO GET THERE BEFORE YOU, SO GET OFF MY TAIL!

Dick Klade said...

A couple of things may be of interest to boomers, now that they're becoming elders.

AARP gives excellent driving refresher courses geared to mature adults. Cost is minimal, and you can't flunk, so no need for stress.

The older I get, the less I like to drive at night. Glare from lights bothers me, although my eyesight is excellent generally. So, in addition to staying away from rainy August days, holding down the nighttime trips may be advisable if you want to live long and prosper.

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schmidleysscribblins, said...

This is like the "Guns don't kill, people kill" argument. Cars don't kill speeders kill. Dianne

Sightings said...

Dianne -- More like, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people. But guns make it a hell of a lot easier for people to kill people."

And so it is with cars. "Accidents happen; but speeding makes more accidents happen, and makes the accidents more deadly."

tuck9899 said...

not sure what i'm suppose to do after reading your article...sounds like a hand wringer to me...was this your intent...because there is nothing new in your observations

Douglas said...

B's son is right, speed does not cause accidents. And you are also right, speeding increases the opportunity for accidents.

But the real cause of accidents is stupidity. Going too fast for conditions is a factor, mechanical issues are factors, road conditions are a factor. But stupidity is the catalyst. Stupidity means you won't slow down when you should, stupidity tells you to change the radio station while going too fast on a winding road, stupidity tells you you can beat that train to the crossing, stupidity tells you to read that text that just came up on your phone. And stupidity doesn't stop there. Stupidity was my co-pilot in each accident I got into.

lawyer said...

Well i withstand your opinion. These days new technologies are introduced in the vehicles like we can use Facebook, twitter,etc and also can hear music etc. So these are basically a part of distraction because sometimes we put our whole thinking into it and leads to major accidents. Government even issues a summon against this but also we need to be careful while driving. We suffer major injuries because of simple distractions.

Grayson Ford said...

It is true that being distracted can cause accidents, but speeding is still a significant factor. If the driver is speeding when he gets distracted, there is no way the driver can recover and brake in time, and it can end in an accident. However, if the driver isn’t speeding, he can easily recover and brake the car in the event that it is necessary. It might sound simple, but there are actually many factors to be considered when somebody gets caught in an accident.

Raleigh Crowl said...

Speeding, texting while driving, driving under the influence - they’re all the same to me. It’s only a formal name that we give our own irresponsibility and bad judgment. Under no circumstances are the aforementioned justifiable. Oh, you’re running late for work? Maybe you should’ve left earlier. You need to answer a very urgent call? Pull over. You’re drunk and need to get home? You can always get a cab or call a friend to pick you up. If there’s a will, there’s a way.

Raleigh Crowl

Guadalupe Puthoff said...

It’s also our fault we’re getting into a lot of car accidents lately. It’s this “on-the-go” culture that we have introduced into our lifestyle that’s always getting us in bad situations. We always have to be doing something, multitasking - we have to be “out there” in the world. “Time is money” is what they say, but is money really worth your health or your life?

Guadalupe Puthoff

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