I’m often petitioned by various public relations people anxious to get their firms a little ink, but alas, none of them have revived the old custom of clipping a $50 bill to the press release.
So most of these entreaties go unanswered. Like weeding spam from your e-mail, I can eliminate most of these without even opening them, even though I’m a curious person.
The more clever ones try to entice the reporter with some topical reference, as in, “our company’s products will stop global warming in its tracks,” or, “as Hillary Clinton recently said…” This week I received a true winner from Jennifer Rounds, director of corporate communications for Peter R. Thom & Associates.
The topic was driver distractions, and her Orinda-based company investigates accidents for insurance companies, public defenders and parties to vehicle manufacturer liability lawsuits:
That July 1, 2008, deadline outlawing the use of handheld devices while driving is approaching. You’ve probably even written about the pluses and minuses of various hands-free models, but is the new legislation all that there is to the story of driver distraction? No. Not by a long shot.
Yes, there’s more and it’s not going away July 1, either. The nice thing about Jennifer’s pitch is that it went right along with my own ongoing rant on this subject.
As she says in her release, “even seasoned drivers are distracted by many more inputs than cell phone conversations,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Accepting her invitation, I spoke to Greg Quan, managing engineer for the company. He started out investigating accidents in the field, and I asked him if he was surprised to find about a tenth of his investigations involving no apparent cause other than the driver’s gaze or mind was not on the road.
“Common sense tells you that you should be paying attention when you’re driving,” he told me. “At the same time, I drive to work every day and I see people not paying attention.”
And with all the fuss over cell phones and the law authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, its surprising to see the data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute that rank-ordered driver distractions.
When police investigate accidents, the 2006 study says, they find that distractions contribute to about 25 to 30 percent of vehicle crashes:
Unfortunately, this statistic is based upon police accident reports that were completed at the scene of crashes. The investigating police officer would only mark distraction or inattention if the driver admitted guilt or an eyewitness observed that the driver was inattentive.
“Yes, officer, I was distracted. I was going for the wasabi and BAM!”
Clearly, researchers understand that most people aren’t that forthcoming, Sam Waterston notwithstanding.
So the guys at Virginia Tech used not one, but five video cameras (I’m guessing they were small) along with sensors to record the every wince and giggle leading up to accidents and near-accidents for 109 vehicles over a year or more.
What they found was that 80 percent of the mishaps their drivers got into were in some way related to a distraction within three seconds of impact.
And here’s another thing: Of those, only 1.5 percent of the crashes involved drivers chatting on mobile phones.
The biggest category, at 25.6 percent, was external distractions, like seeing something on the side of the road or maybe another car doing something odd. Only 1.7 percent involved eating or drinking, which really shocked me, a regular behind-the-wheel diner.
Like so many laws, the one that starts on Tuesday is a reaction to a trend that happens to worry a lot of people. Will it save lives and property? I think so. In addition to giving people an extra hand to drive with for a few extra minutes each day, I think it will make people think a little more about how they comport themselves behind the wheel.