Category: Safety

By on April 15, 2009

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently performed a series of crash tests to garner widespread MSM coverage to justify their enormous operating budget to the insurance companies that pay for the “don’t tell anyone we’re not from the government” organization’s existence—I mean demonstrate the heretofore unimaginable fact that small/lightweight cars get the snot kicked out of them when they collide front-to-front with medium size cars, despite the fact that the small cars involved received the IIHS’ best possible frontal crash ratings. All this came as no surprise to Mike Dulberger, founder of

Mr. Dulberger is an engineer with an OCD vehicle safety thing. He reckons the IIHS and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety ratings are “confusing, conflicting and incomplete.” Amongst other criticisms, Dulberger slates the two heavyweights for failing to adequately consider the contribution of a given vehicle’s mass to its overall safety. So Dulberger developed has own analysis—SCORE (Statistical Combination Of Risk Elements)—to rectify this and other shortcomings.

As you might expect, the small/lightweight cars crash tested by the IIHS fared badly under Dulberger’s SCORE system. Of the three small vehicles tested, the Smart Fortwo held special significance for Mr. Dulberger. Sherman, set the wayback machine for October 2008 . . .

On that fateful date, Dulberger was asked to share his SCORE analysis with Forbes (magazine), as part of their annual “2009 Most Dangerous Vehicles” article. Dulberger duly fingered the Smart (that doesn’t sound right) as a bit of a . . . well . . . you know.

“Not only does the smart have a high risk due to its low weight (1800 lb),’ Dulberger asserts, ‘it also has the lowest NHTSA frontal rating (three stars, passenger side) of any 2009 vehicle. And because of its top heavy design, the smart has almost twice the rollover risk of the average passenger car.”

In fact, the Smart received one of’s lowest ever SCOREs: 130. According to Dulberger, the number represents more than twice his system’s “acceptable” fatality risk. All this he told Forbes.

Unfortunately (for the consumer), Forbes forgot to publish Dulberger’s smart conclusions. He believes the sin of omission was the direct result of objections raised by Smart USA’s President, David Schembri.

Before Forbes ran its piece, Schembri somehow got a hold of Dulberger’s phone number and gave him an earful. The Smart guy declared flat out that his car was safe. After all, the IIHS had rated it “GOOD.” Schembri told Dulberger any assertion to the contrary was wrong, irresponsible and, how shall we put this? Actionable.

And so Dulberger’s smart safety slam was spiked. This is what they published instead:

What’s most important for buyers is finding cars that are safe but also suited to their individual needs. The 1,808-pound, $11,990 Smart Fortwo, for example, is the smallest car on the road and received solid safety ratings for both crashes and rollovers–it didn’t come close to making our list. But that doesn’t make the car the safest or best for a large or tall person.

“The NHTSA data simply does not support that conclusion,” Dulberger insists. “Three stars for passenger side frontal impact is the lowest rating by NHTSA for any vehicle, and three stars rollover is the lowest rating by NHTSA for any passenger car.

“It’s hard to believe that this misrepresentation is a mistake given the fact that I pointed these same issues out to them. . . I guess Forbes believes that ‘safety first’ means testing a manufacturers reaction to its editorial content before publishing.”

Or not, when everyone else goes first. And even in that case, well, it’s hard to read this excerpt from Forbes‘ coverage of the recent IIHS smart debacle the same way, knowing Dulberger’s tale.

In the crash test between the C-Class and Fortwo, for example, the Smart bounced off the C-Class and turned 450 degrees before landing and displacing the instrument panel and steering wheel through the cockpit. The C-Class had almost no intrusion of the front gears into the passenger area.

Granted, the IIHS tests are much more severe than government safety standards mandate, as small-car proponents often note. The Smart Fortwo meets all U.S. government crash-test standards, including a five-star side-crash rating, notes Dave Schembri, the president of Smart USA. It also earned the highest scores for front- and side-crash worthiness from the IIHS itself.

As for the pressure that Smart may or may not have been brought to bear on Forbes, that may or may not have involved advertising, what did you expect? The truth about cars?

By on March 3, 2009

In a recent editorial on TTAC, Jack Baruth described a harrowing incident that nearly led to the demise of his beloved Volkswagen Phaeton. The editorial claimed the incident was the masturbatory fantasy of every “driver training” and “active safety” advocate. He concludes that he lived to write another day not because of his driver training, but rather dumb luck. Not so fast, Mr. Baruth.

From his story, we know that Jack was operating a vehicle capable of .82 g’s lateral acceleration at a rate of 123 MPH in the left lane of an AASHTO-compliant interstate highway. As a crash was unfolding in front of him, he recognized that his only avenue of escape was partially blocked so he rapidly decelerated to a speed of 70 mph and then executed his first steering input.

By his own admission, Baruth’s only inputs: hard braking and slow steering. What we don’t know is whether solving this particular problem in the way that he did required the skills of a highly trained driver, the technological wizardry of computer aided driving systems or whether the outcome can be attributed to just plain luck. To see if we can’t figure that out, we’ll have to take a closer look at the three critical components of this and every other behind-the-wheel emergency: the driver, the vehicle and the environment.

Because the crash took Jack by surprise and presented a relatively complex set of problems, it most likely took him 1.2 seconds to understand the problem and come up with a plan to resolve it. It likely took him another .3 seconds to get from the throttle to the brake pedal. By the way, that’s not me saying that; it’s Dr. Marc Green, the world renowned psychologist whose 34 years of research into driver reaction time is universally accepted by accident reconstruction experts around the world.

By then, Jack VeeDub had traveled 271.22 feet.

Based on Jack’s recounting of the tale, the first steering input was made at 70 mph. At that speed, the tightest radius his black panzer would be able to tolerate before it began to slide or lift was 398 feet.

For argument’s sake, and given that Jack had to drop two wheels off the road surface in order to get his 6.24 foot wide car around the problem, let’s say there was 5 feet of clear pavement for him to work with. That means Jack would have had to turn the wheel at least 255.5 feet from the crash in order to safely execute the maneuver in question.

That’s assuming he was capable of operating the vehicle at peak efficiency under significant stress, which is the sort of stuff Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher are made of. While that’s not likely the case, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was capable of operating his vehicle at about 85 percent of peak efficiency, in which case he would have had to turn the wheel no less than 277.5 feet from the crash.

Because we’re a little short on hard data, we’ll make a generous assumption in favor of jack’s marvel of German engineering. We’ll estimate that it required 230 feet to bleed off enough energy to drop from 123 mph to 70 mph. So, to hear the story as Jack tells it, and to solve the problem in the manner he described, he would have needed nearly 779 feet—or close to 46 car lengths—of distance to make his decisions and take the actions he did without overreaching the existing driver/vehicle capability envelope.

With that much room between himself and the problem, had he simply slammed on the brakes when he first noticed the crash he would have come to a stop more than 300 feet from the crash site and have avoided all the other theatrics.

Based on that fact, I dare say that on that fateful day in question, Jack did not find himself in a life or death situation. Nor was it one that required advanced driver training, the technological wizardry of ESC, or any amount of luck to resolve.

All things considered, this story told by Jack, from the dramatic fashion in which it unfolded to the conclusions he draws from it is not the masturbatory fantasy of some “driver training” or “active safety” advocate. This fantasy is his and his alone.

Having said all that, there is some indication that advanced driver training played a role in this scenario, even if it did originate in the author’s fertile mind. After all, weren’t we told that he immediately recognized that “at his current speed the right lane was unreachable”?  Now that’s a skill you just can’t get from a basic drivers ed course.

By on February 24, 2009

In response to Jack Baruth’s editorial, Mike Stone writes:

I have been making the same 60-mile round trip commute for many years, my route consisting of rural 2 lane roads and expressways. During the course of every winter, regular as clockwork, I see 5 to 10 vehicles that have run off the road in icy, snowy or wet conditions. Some of these are clearly a result of excessive speed but on two occasions, I have been behind a vehicle that was travelling at or below a safe speed when it simply lost control. What could cause such a thing? A clue lies in a well-documented statistic that 93% of all traffic accidents are the result of human error.

Although cars have been with us for more than 100 years, driving a motor vehicle is an inherently foreign environment because the human brain was not designed to travel faster than running speed. Our “fight or flight” mechanisms become overloaded in panic situations when behind the wheel because we are not equipped to handle the rapidity of events. The result is often a situation where the brain is unable to process the inputs and send the appropriate messages to the body quickly enough and we “freeze” or we make an instinctive, possibly inappropriate, response.

The “brain freeze” condition is well known in military organizations where long periods of boredom can be punctuated by short spells of terror. The counter is to instil a series of automated responses (conditioned reflexes) so that individuals are able to respond appropriately to a given threat. The New York Police Department has 36,000 officers and in 2006, the force encountered 60 instances where officers had to fire their weapons in response to a threat.1 This means that each officer has a 1 in 600 chance that he/she will be involved in a shooting incident in a given year. Despite this low probability, officers undergo regular firearms and threat response training in order to reinforce their conditioned reflexes and override brain freezing. Airline pilots carry out the same type of conditioned reflex training to meet emergencies that most will likely never encounter in their entire careers.

Driving a motor vehicle has some similar characteristics to the high-risk professions noted above—long periods of boredom and mundane tasks occasionally punctuated by short periods of unexpected stress. Yet the training that most drivers receive tends to concentrate on the mundane, mechanical aspects of operating a vehicle and we develop conditioned reflexes that may be completely inappropriate in emergencies.

In 2006, there were 250.8 million passenger vehicles2 in the U.S. and 5.2 million3 were involved in a collision of some description. This means that each vehicle had a 1 in 48 chance of being in a collision—12 times more likely than a NY police officer had of firing his/her weapon! Viewed from this perspective, it seems almost reckless that the average driver can only count on brain freeze and possibly inappropriate conditioned reflexes to deal with unexpected or stressful situations.

Advanced driver training is designed in part to instil revisions to our conditioned reflexes under certain conditions so that we are better able to handle emergencies and to refine our typical driving behaviours. A note of clarification here, advanced driver training in this context is limited to defensive driving and winter driving courses. I specifically exclude autocross, high-performance and track courses because the skills learned have almost no application to everyday driving.

Advanced driving courses teach situational avoidance and embed the continual, almost subconscious use of “what if” scenarios while driving. A driver has the opportunity to “feel” the dynamics of a vehicle in a controlled environment. How does a vehicle behave just before it loses adhesion with the road and how is adhesion restored? What does it feel like when two wheels on the same side leave the road or lose their grip? It is infinitely better to answer these questions in the safety of a course environment than on a public road. Once these situations have been experienced, the driving input corrections readily become conditioned reflexes and much of the potential for panic is removed if/when they occur in real world driving.

There is a suggestion that driver training can lead to overconfidence and more aggressive driving. This abstract is difficult to prove or disprove although a countervailing argument would be that a naturally aggressive driver who attends a course might simply become a more knowledgeable aggressive driver.

If airline pilots invest hundreds of hours training to handle a statistically unlikely situation, it is plain common sense for the average driver to invest a relatively short time preparing for a distinct possibility.

By on February 21, 2009

It’s a bright Thursday morning on Interstate 95. I’m hammering my black Phaeton down the left lane at an indicated one hundred and twenty-three miles per hour. In the back seat, my brother and sister-in-law are sound asleep. Next to me, my wife idly flips through the pages of a month-old magazine. “I think the Wilderness Lodge is the worst hotel at Disney… of the acceptable ones, you know,” she says. Before I can respond I notice that we’re closing in on what looks like a high-speed multiple-car freeway accident. In progress.

There are five lanes. The middle three are occupied by a tractor-trailer which is slewing sideways in true action-movie fashion. The right lane is unreachable at my current closing speed, so I dismiss it. The left lane and most of the shoulder is filled with cars swerving left and right before colliding into the mass of stopped traffic. The “pop-pop-pop” of the hits arrive through the double-pane glass just a moment after I see each set of rear wheels leave the ground upon impact.

With a solid shove of the left foot, I’ve engaged the ABS and there’s a scream from behind me as my sister-in-law is simultaneously awoken by the sudden deceleration and choked by her safety belt. Down to 70mph or so, foot off the brake, and now we’re in the thick of things. I choose to drop two wheels off the left shoulder and thread the gap. There’s a solid SLAM that fills the cabin as the tractor-trailer finally makes contact with something.

A blue Buick LeSabre ejects itself from the mess backwards and crosses our path in an eyeblink. The driver’s mouth is open; his hands are off the wheel. In a flash he’s upside-down and tumbling across the grassy median. Back on the throttle to lift the nose, climb the shoulder. I pick up the phone to call 911 and report what’s just happened.

This incident was the masturbatory fantasy of every “driver training” and “active safety” advocate: a mildly skilled vehicle operator avoids a deadly accident in a [conveniently European] sedan while SUVs drive mindlessly into a steaming pile. A couple of problems with the scenario…

First, my car, passengers, and cargo totaled well over 6000 pounds. The only inputs I applied were hard braking and slow steering. I could have done the same thing in an Escalade. The second is that it wasn’t skill that got me through; it was luck. I happened to find the empty spot, but that spot wasn’t empty a moment before and it wasn’t empty a moment afterwards. Only timing and the hand of Chance/Fate/insert your chosen Deity saved me from hitting stopped cars at seventy miles per hour. Had I closed my eyes and slammed the brakes, I might have made it through just as well.

There is no convincing evidence that skill-based driver training reduces automotive-related fatalities in this or any other country. While a recent IIHS study claims that mandatory ESC will reduce fatalities, the biggest benefit appears to come from reducing the risk of oscillation-based rollovers. Put it another way: if the reaction of every driver in this country to a potential accident were to simply stand on the brakes and prepare for impact, fatalities might well be reduced.

The Active Steering now available in BMW and Audi products recognizes this. When a panicky driver saws at the wheel, Active Steering drastically reduces the size of the input, thus ensuring that the car hits nose-first rather than with a far less well-protected door or B-pillar. Nor is this technology aimed exclusively at bumbling untrained Americans; the oh-so-superior European market apparently orders it as often as we do.

No amount of stricter licensing, pre-license training, or post-license testing can adequately prepare the average person for the wide variety of dangerous situations he or she is likely to face in a lifetime of driving, nor can a few open-lapping days or skidpad sessions significantly increase a driver’s readiness to cope with an on-road challenge which may happen years or decades afterwards.

If training doesn’t save lives, what does? Drive less, drive slower, drive sober, take the bus, ride the train. But if you must drive, don’t kid yourself that being a racer, autocrosser, or self-proclaimed “good driver” will save you. Had I been unlucky that sunny day in Florida, I had the comfort of knowing that I, and my family, would have met that impact in a 5200-pound, multiple-airbag, comprehensively crash-engineered premium automobile—precisely the type of car derided by others as a “rolling padded cell.”

When your family’s life in on the line, it won’t be the reflexes of the moment that decide who lives and dies. Instead, it will be that dimly remembered moment of purchase, months or years previous.

[Ed.’s Note: If you disagree with Mr. Baruth’s views, we extend to you an invitation for a counterpoint editorial. Please keep it to fewer than 800 words and keep it professional. If we receive more than one article, we will condense the most salient points into one article. Send it to [email protected], sil vous plait. Carry on.]

By on December 11, 2008

Ah, the first snow of the year.  The frozen blanket transforms even the ugliest landscapes into crystalline sanctuaries. Crisp air fills the lungs and the inevitable homey smell of a wood fire tells of a distant warming hearth. Earth’s annual metamorphosis triggers a few moments when we get to live a dream stolen from the cover of an old December issue Saturday Evening Post. But for too many, this winter wonderland fantasy is abruptly cut short by the sickening sound of exploding metal, glass and plastic, because the first snow of winter also invites a rash of traffic accidents.

I spent ten winters in northern Utah. Every year, highways ground to a halt from hundreds of traffic accidents on the first day that snow accumulated on road surfaces. I thought, these are Utahans, they should know how to drive on snow. What’s the deal?

Driving on snow and ice requires a recalibration of our timing. By the end of the summer, we don’t think about how long it’s going to take us to brake for an upcoming stop sign on naked pavement; we feel it. Our ingrained habits betray us when water, snow and ice rudely come between us and the road surface. We need practice.

Coming from Texas, I feel disadvantaged driving through white-capped Wasatch Mountains. As George Strait crooned, there’s no Snow in San Antonio. So at the first accumulation of snow, I hop into my old Camry and head for empty parking lots and sparsely traveled back roads for a little automotive me-time.

With no other cars around, I experiment to find out how fast I can corner and stop. I also test to see how steep a road I can safely climb or descend. I re-learn how to finesse both brake and throttle. Back in traffic I’m rightly adjusted to slow-up and allow for proper intervals.

Each year, I repeat this practice ritual at first snow fall. it’s kept me accident-free through rough Rocky Mountain winters.

But despite the drill, getting caught in a blizzard in my trusty old front-wheel drive Toyota still took its toll. I vividly remember white knuckling my way through several snow storms on the road home from grandmother’s house (literally) with my wife and small kids, as I struggled to keep the car on the road and avoid hitting or being hit by other drivers. While the greatest winter driving safety device is the lump of fat and knot of neurons floating between a driver’s ears, equipment also plays a role.

First and foremost are the right tires. On snow and ice, a good pair of snow tires can make even the worst rear wheel-drive (RWD) car a significantly more competent machine. Conversely, the most advanced all wheel-drive systems are rendered impotent with summer meats or worn treads.

Traction control (TC) has emerged as a great equalizer for RWD cars. TC uses either the Anti-lock Brake System or electronically controlled clutches to transfer engine torque to the wheel with the best traction. Last winter I drove a convertible Mustang (top up) through a Chicago snow storm. Despite the superabundance of torque, the pony car’s rear-end stayed safely behind me at all times, without so much as a slip or stall. With the TC off, I turned enough doughnuts to feed the entire Chicago PD.

It would seem that AWD or four-wheel drive cars and trucks are less safe than FWD. Very often we see that the first drivers to slide off the road when the weather turns bad are at the wheel of these “super capable” cars and trucks. But overconfidence is a form of driver error, not equipment failure.

This is an important distinction. When Jack Frost catches a cold, technically the best-equipped cars and truck for safely driving are AWD and 4WDs with appropriate tires.

In low-friction environments, being able to put power to all four wheels can provide up to four times greater traction while acceleration or pulling through a corner over a RWD or FWD car without traction control. To an extent, 4WDs also help in braking due to increased power train drag that allows drivers to moderate their speed without hitting the brakes.

On the down side, these systems add weight and neither improves braking or cornering (except while accelerating). And that’s where lame brain drivers get in trouble. The ability to accelerate on the slippery stuff seems to drain IQ points from drivers.

And so we come full circle. While equipment can help aid drivers, the greatest factor is the man or woman gripping the steering wheel. I love the change in seasons and look forward to winter sports, or just messing around in the snow. But when it gets icy and dicey, nothing beats proper snow tires steered by a calm, practiced, alert and sensible driver.

By on March 4, 2008

bad_car_wrecklarge.jpgI live in a hilly area of high-crowned, barely two-lane back roads. There are no center lines, lots of blind corners, hills and crests; and not much traffic. You could say it’s an enthusiast's paradise. But then… stupid drivers. It happened to me last week, for the third time in a year. A driver without the slightest situational awareness put me into a ditch, leaving me yelping moronically and bleating my horn while they sped off. This has got to stop.

In the last couple of years, the four o'clock rush has provided a perfect illustration of vehicular inattentiveness. That’s when the contractors and service guys in vans and pickups and the boys in the local U.S. Military Academy cadre jump in their big trucks and race home. Fortunately, I get to view the show from the opposite-direction traffic. It’s an inbound kamikaze squadron. Negotiating our only four-lane, I can almost hear Darrell Waltrip: “Lookit, lookit, they’re three wide into the corner and somebody’s gonna wreck!”

On the back road shortcuts, I meet guys in compact cars coming the other way. A simple, mutual flick of the steering wheel to move aside and we're by each other. But the pickup-and-SUV crowd hews to the crown of the road.  It’s move off the road or be killed.

Folks, I'm not talkin' Alzheimered grandmothers or soccer moms on cell phones. These are NASCAR dads with toolboxes in back who imagine that on a good day they could give Junior a run for his money. And yet they’re obviously unable to put their enormous right front fender any closer to the edge of the road because they haven't the faintest idea how much clearance is available.

To me, this lack of spatial awareness (SA) is the clearest sign of a national diminution of driving skills. And yet America’s driving instruction (and tests) still teaches new motorists that their safety depends on maintaining a “safe margin of distance”– rather than focusing on SA and car control. That’s two kinds of stupid.

Once upon a time, positioning skills– rather than simple speed– were the mark of an excellent driver. Ken Purdy’s classic book Kings of the Road contains a wonderful chapter about the Italian racecar driver Tazio Nuvolari. Though I’m working from 40-year-ago memory here, the author relates how Nuvolari accepted a dare to drive through an ancient stone arch. The passage provided his monoposto Alfa-Romeo with two inches of clearance on each side.  Nuvolari did it at a triple-digit speed. With ease.

In Germany, Autobahn-repair rubber cones sometimes funnel two lanes into a space earlier taken by one. Everybody slows, positions and keeps moving. In New York, Michigan or California, traffic comes to a standstill whenever they cut the flow down to a single-lane merge, since nobody could deal with such proximity. I always wonder what Europe must be like for the American rental-car drivers who can’t make it down their small-town streets without clipping side mirrors.

It’s hard to know which came first: American cars without enough road feel for proper positioning or American drivers’ lack of interest in cars with enough road feel for proper positioning (never mind cornering). In any case, the result is truly frightening. 

I’m an EMS volunteer. Our ambulances can’t even use our town’s quite ordinary Main Street when we’re in a hurry; we’re too likely to come up against somebody in an SUV who has to fearfully get out of our way and inch past, even with a foot of clearance on either side.

At the risk of offending someone with the truth, it’s  often a woman who has no more business driving a 6,000-pound truck with fingertip light power steering than she does piloting a Lear. But she likes the visibility and her husband insists. (My own doctor’s wife tells me that she loathes her towering Toyota Land Cruiser, but her better half feels better knowing his wife is encased in so much metal.)

If you don’t count my time aboard a Farmall tractor, I learned to drive in 1952, and the olden days were a time when you worked on your own skills and pretty much assumed everybody else on the road was reasonably competent.   These days, I spend far too much of my driving time looking out for the other guy– whether it’s the duallie Ram half in my lane, the Expedition bearing down unchecked in my rear-view mirror at the stoplight, the woman who looked left and right and then pulled out 20 feet in front of me awhile ago (in EMS, we call them “looked but didn’t see” crashes) or somebody inexplicably crossing from their lane into opposite-direction traffic.

Drunk? Distracted? Simply lost control? We’ve seen ‘em all, and they’re usually fatal for somebody. All too often the other guy,

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the only realistic hope for increasing public safety on our roads is the automated car. Personally, I can think of nothing worse than surrendering control of my vehicle to a microchip. But then, like you, I’m not the problem.

By on February 23, 2008

“Scion does not recommend towing a trailer… your vehicle was not designed for towing.” Welcome to the great American anti-towing conspiracy. Manufacturers of anything less than a big SUV or pick-up are trying to take away our God-given right to tow with our cars. For a guy who’s towed everything from a Radio Flyer wagon behind a pedal-powered John Deere sidewalk tractor, to a three-bedroom house, I feel like I’m being singled out. Of course, there’s a possibility that I’m the cause as well as the target of this jihad. A lot of lawyers do drive the Ventura Freeway, and one of them may well have seen my spectacular stunt with a trailer. Read More >

By on December 13, 2007

revised_pyrotechnics_bonnet.jpgEach year, automobiles kill more people than malnutrition, war and stomach cancer. That’s not including drivers and passengers. Obviously, the automobile – pedestrian toll is greatest in developing nations, where road safety is a strictly Darwinian affair. But the industrial world’s pedestrian “ksi” (killed or seriously injured) statistics are also pretty grim. Legislators in Europe, Japan and Korea have decided to take action. They’ve all developed legislative initiatives to force car makers to introduce new technology for reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries. America has no plans to get with the program. Should it?

The stats say yes. Over four thousand American pedestrians are killed in accidents with motor vehicles each year; some seventy thousand are injured. That's roughly eleven percent of all traffic fatalities. The percentage is on the rise. For obvious reasons, children and old people are the most likely to get in harms way. Children account for roughly 10 percent of all pedestrian deaths; that’s about 400 per year in the U.S. alone.

While American safety campaigners focus on law enforcement and driver training (good luck with that), the European Union has launched a technology-based campaign. By 2015, the EU demands that automakers’ products make collisions survivable when they occur between a pedestrian and a car moving at 40kph (24.9 mph). It’s a lofty goal that would save thousands of lives– that depends entirely on technology. 

The EU would like to see brake assist technology as a standard feature in all vehicles. When a computer senses that a driver is using the brakes too hesitantly, the system increases brake force. Experts claim that Brake Assist decreases the number of pedestrian accidents by about five percent. They’d also like to see widespread use of radar or infrared-sensor-based collision avoidance systems. From there, the changes become more radical, and obvious.

To comply with the EU requirements, automakers are already adapting the design of their cars’ fronts— ground zero for pedestrian fatalities. Obviously, a smooth, soft front end is the way forward. That's why the styling of many European cars (e.g. Jaguar’s new XK) has already been changed, with higher, more easily deformable hoods. Much can be achieved by attention to details, within a comprehensive testing procedure.

To quell disquiet over post-accident repair, the U.K. insurance industry's Thatcham Institute recently tested various models to assess the expense of restoring deformed hoods. After a 10kph impact, they found that most SUVs incurred expensive body damage (in addition to having poor pedestrian ratings). In contrast, the Toyota (Euro-Corolla) Auris was both safer for pedestrians and relatively cheap to repair.

European automakers are already taking the next step: hoods with active safety devices that “pop up” the hood to reduce the severity of an impact with a pedestrian's head. Euro-NCAP crash tests have awarded the new Citroen C6 and Jaguar XK four out of five stars for pedestrian protection. Both models were the first to be equipped with “active hoods.” Sweden's Autoliv AB is developing hood airbags to make even inherently dangerous SUVs more pedestrian-friendly.

I recently attended the CTI Car Training Institute’s 2007 Pedestrian Protection Forum at Sindelfingen. It was quite touching to see nerdy auto engineers stand up and say things like "we have the technology, so let's get up off our backsides and do what we can to stop this killing of people.” U.S. officials were noticeably less keen.

In a phone interview, a NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) spokesman told me that America’s vehicle mix-– more trucks and SUVs— isn’t as conducive to pedestrian-friendly technology as cars in the Eurozone. NHTSA research suggests that there are unexplored trade-offs involved. “You can make a car front better for children, but then it may get worse for adults.” Why not publish pedestrian-safety ratings and let the consumer decide? “Again, we don't think you can find a one-size-fits-all solution”.

According to Prof. Florian Kramer at Germany's Dresden Technical University, those are weak arguments. “Of course it is difficult, but in constructing cars, everything is a compromise”, he says. “The point is, there is very much room for improving the pedestrian-safety of cars”. Kramer continued: “Actually, our European NCAP system was inspired by the U.S., and it's difficult to understand why the U.S. is not following up on their own idea, by including pedestrian protection.”

While American pedestrians will benefit from European action on pedestrian safety (given international trade), NHTSA’s reluctance to grasp the nettle and set standards for automakers doing business in the U.S. is likely to backfire in the long term. As was the case with fuel economy innovations, it's no good to pass the ball to foreign competitors if you lose your ability to compete technologically. And anyway: if plane crashes caused the death of 400 children each year, would legislators hesitate to enforce stricter regulations on the airline industry?

By on December 12, 2007

terrespon1.jpgRetired Israeli Air Force ace Giora Epstein flew Mirage, Nesher and F-16 fighter aircraft during his career. When asked by the History Channel which aircraft he preferred, he replied “In the Mirage and the Nesher, the pilot flies the aircraft. In the F-16, the computer flies the aircraft and the pilot is just another input to the computer.” Modern automotive electronics have transferred Epstein’s complaint to millions of cars. We may purchase and maintain our vehicles, but we no longer truly drive them. Increasingly, we’re mere inputs for the computers that do.

This experience may be mostly transparent, but it is real. Press on the ‘gas’ pedal of an electronic-throttle car and it doesn’t open the throttle; it simply tells the engine computer the desired torque output.The brake pedal of a Toyota Prius doesn’t activate the brakes; it tells the ABS computer how much braking to supply. Turn the steering wheel in an Active Steering-equipped BMW and the direction change ranges from barely-noticeable to “Holy s***!”, depending upon what the Active Steering system decides is appropriate.

Under most circumstances, drivers don’t know or care that computers are intermediating their driving. But sometimes it does matter. Lift off an electronic throttle pedal and the computer may ignore it, holding the throttle open to reduce smog emissions. Panic brake in deep snow and ABS may threshold-brake the car into an intersection, when locked brakes might have stopped it much sooner. Try to ‘rock’ a vehicle out of slush and the traction control system may steadfastly thwart the effort.

This lack of control particularly frustrates driving enthusiasts. They want engine braking at lift-throttle, not when the computer decides they can have it. They want to take their favorite corner in a lurid tail-out slide, not electronic nannies telling them that they can’t. It’s a real killjoy when the HAL 9000 controlling the transmission rejects a downshift with an “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Or when the simple act of simultaneously pushing the brake and accelerator pedals sets off an electronic hissy-fit.

Even when the pocket-protector set tries to apply their dark arts for enthusiasts, they usually end up spoiling the fun. At the extreme end, Formula 1 banned electronic driver aids in the early 1990s (the ban has since been modified) because winning became more a function of software engineering than driver skill. Lower down the food chain, automakers have no qualms whatsoever about rendering their sports-oriented customers’ driving skills irrelevant.

Several high end automakers now offer transmission ‘launch control’ modes, where a driver simply selects the mode and floors the accelerator. Maximum acceleration is provided; no clutch modulation skills required. The new F430 Scuderia is equipped with F1-Trac traction control, which Ferrari test drivers admit allows ordinary drivers to nearly match their lap times around Fiorano.

Where is the pride in mastering driving skills when any Tom, Dick or Harriet can duplicate them by pushing a button? The piss-ant paradigm now extends to off-roading, where Land Rovers offer Fisher-Price type buttons that configure a vehicle’s various e-Nannies for various terrains. Hill Descent Control allows feet free operation. No muss. No fuss. No skill. No fun.

Ordinary drivers have a different interaction with all this automotive electronic wizardry. It makes them worse drivers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that about 25 percent of all American automobile accidents are caused by distracted drivers. That’s plain to see. Cruise the freeways in any U.S. urban area. Clock how many drivers are talking on their cell phones, fiddling with their iPods, checking their navigation screens, playing with their iDrive/COMAND/MMI interfaces, or looking for the Teletubbies disc for the onboard DVD player. Their focus is everywhere but their driving.

ABS, panic brake assist and stability control can help prevent an accident, but they can’t make the car brake or steer. Only an attentive driver can do that.

Automotive electronics are also dumbing down drivers through the subtle action of moral hazard. The old anti-driver’s aids shibboleth says that cars should be equipped with sharp spikes instead of airbags, to encourage drivers to drive very carefully. Perhaps. Meanwhile, manufacturers give them an electronically expanded safety envelope. Drivers respond to this safety net by driving more aggressively. As a result, the safety benefits of technology are cancelled out by dumber driving.

Studies indicate that ABS-equipped cars have about the same accident rate as their non-ABS equivalents. Similarly, automotive forums bristle with stories about highway medians filled with flipped-over SUVs whose drivers thought 4WD was synonymous with “invincibility.”

History indicates that as drivers adapt to these new technologies, many of the problems associated with them will decline. But there are other ticking time bombs in the automotive electronic world. In our next installment, we’ll look at the long-term implications of these high-tech wonders.

By on June 28, 2007

speed12.jpgAs a “victim” of the UK’s anti-speeding jihad, I’ve been watching their “safety camera” campaign with morbid fascination. Here you have a reasonably democratic government unleashing a mega-tsunami of electronic surveillance to curb a behavior practiced by the vast majority of its populace. The results have been staggering: millions of licenses imperiled or revoked, tens of millions in pounds in fines collected, no appreciable diminution of violations and no increase in road safety. And yet, the jihadists remain determined to carry on. So when speed camera opponents launched a “scrapcam” petition, I expected a groundswell of support. Silly me.

Last November, as part of [former] Prime Minister Tony Blair’s commitment to web-based accountability, the UK government launched an online petition-posting widget. In February, an anti-camera group called Safe Speed uploaded a petition calling for the Prime Minister to “scrap speed cameras.” Their one-paragraph call to action characterized speed cameras as a lousy landing at the wrong airport.

“Far from making our roads safer, speed cameras have replaced genuine life saving policies and distracting everyone from more important safety factors. Instead… -We must have road safety policies based on skills, attitudes and responsibilities… We must avoid needlessly prosecuting skilled and responsible drivers driving safely – We must measure what is important, not make important that which is easily measured – and you can't measure safe driving in miles per hour."

On Tuesday, the petition closed, with some 28k signatures collected. Speaking to us today from London, Safe Speed’s founder pronounced himself pleased with the results. “Considering we had no publicity, it was a good showing” Paul Smith asserted. “Of the 7,700 petitions online, ours was the seventh most signed.”

Smith is not so happy with the government’s response. The officials sent every signatory an email that attempted to ameliorate their concerns. Smith considers it patently unfair that the government should have the last word, and not allow petitioners to email signatories who agree to such contact. In fact, he’s “ABSOLUTELY LIVID” that 10 Downing Street sent out an “inaccurate and grossly misleading” rebuttal.

Safe Speed responded with a press release tearing apart the government’s pro-camera argument piece by bloody piece. Here's a small sample of their evisceration [Safe Speed’s answers indicated by an asterisk]:

Speeding kills. It is a contributory factor in 26% of all fatal accidents in Great Britain.

* No it isn't. According to Department for Transport figures exceeding a speed limit it is a contributory factor in 12% of fatal crashes. We know that many of those are caused by reckless and 'abnormal' driver behaviour.

The facts are stark. If a child pedestrian is hit at 30mph they stand an 80% chance of surviving. But if they are hit at 40mph they stand an 80% chance of dying. That is why the Government is committed to achieving appropriate vehicle speeds on the roads as part of its integrated road safety strategy.

* The true facts are more encouraging. In 2005 in built up areas (20, 30 and 40 mph speed limits) 11,000 child pedestrians were injured out of which 47 were killed. 0.42% were killed. So clearly we're not running into them at 'speed limit' speeds because at 30mph we would have killed 2,200. The claim is grossly misleading.  

Independent research published in December 2005 shows that safety cameras had saved around 1,745 people from being killed or seriously injured, and had prevented around 4,230 personal injury collisions on Britain's roads each year.

* That very same report reveals – buried in appendix h – that 'regression to mean effect' accounts for a full three quarters of the benefit claimed. To make the claim while ignoring the known error is nothing less than a FRAUD.

Clearly, Smith and his cohorts know their onions. Not so clearly, their campaign is gaining ground.

On the first of April, the Department of Transportation officially disowned the speed camera policy. They transferred all responsibility for the scheme’s implementation to regional authorities, giving them the freedom to amp-up or ditch the entire policy as they see fit. Equally importantly, a seven-year case against speed cameras at the European Court of Human Rights is set to be resolved tomorrow.

The case was brought by UK resident Idris Francis. Francis’ briefs argued that the UK government does not have the right to legally compel Mr. Francis to identify the driver of his vehicle at the time it was captured speeding by a “safety camera.” The demand violates his legal protection against self-incrimination.

According to Smith, if the European court strikes down the ticket (believe it or not), that’s it: speeding camera prosecutions will no longer be viable. And if it doesn’t? I mean… 28k supporters ain't much. Safe Speed's 52-year-old engineer turned road safety campaigner is resolute. “We’ll still be here, fighting this dangerous policy to the very end. It’s only a matter of time.” 

By on June 14, 2007

overload2.jpgIt’s easy to get caught up in Inside Baseball speculation about the future of international automotive imports. Will a Chinese-made subcompact take the Western world by storm, or will Renault’s Integrated Manufacturing System (RIMS) venture in India eventually sate the industrialized world’s insatiable appetite for small, cheap, frugal cars? Meanwhile, we hear little or nothing about traffic flowing the other way: the millions of used cars flooding into the third world from developed nations. The dirty truth about this trade is just that: the vast majority of these cars are pollution-spewing death traps. 

There’s a huge and thriving third world market for worn-out vehicles: cars, trucks, buses and commercial vehicles that don’t have a hope in Hell of passing a safety or emissions test. The business exists on the margins of society, run by criminal syndicates, dubious exporters and tens of thousands of desperate individuals. Participants congregate in bazaars on the borders between developed countries and their less fortunate neighbors. 

Writing in Der Spiegel magazine, Eric Wiedermann described one corner of the international traffic in cheap and cheerless vehicles. Down by Germany’s Hamburg train station, in an enormous space divided by barbed wire-topped mobile fences, Wiedermann found “economic immigrants” buying and selling broken down cars that had never seen better days. He also found violence, deception and intimidation.   

“With a little luck, a dealer can earn €300 to €400 selling a car that's considered scrap in Germany," Wiedermann writes. “It’s not much, but — should the seller come from, say, Chechnya — it's enough to feed his family for a half a year. But the potential profits are radically out of proportion with the risks involved.”

The dealers perpetuating this seedy souk of spent metal sell an average clapped-out European-spec sedan for €500. Thanks to a ready market in the Caucasus and the Orient, garbage trucks and hearses fetch a small premium. Dealers load the vehicles onto trucks bound for Africa and Eastern Europe, where safety and emission standards either don’t exist or can’t withstand the persuasive force of discreet monetary donations.

If you’ve traveled to a third world country, you’ve seen the end result of these down market dealings: hundreds of thousands of decrepit vehicles, pedal-to-the-metal, belching toxic wastes, with passengers and goods filling every available automotive orifice and covering every available surface.

These tired, overworked, over-loaded, poorly maintained, air-fouling beasts of burden are driven on horrific roads by inadequately trained drivers with negligible police oversight. It ain’t pretty, and it ain’t safe. The ensuing carnage is as gruesome and pervasive as you’d expect.

The Global Road Safety Partnership reckons that 1.2m people die in automobile-related accidents per year. Some 50m are injured. More than eighty-five percent of these road traffic deaths and injuries occur in low income and middle income countries, even though they only account for 40 percent of the world's motor vehicles. According to the World Health Organization, more African children die from road crashes than the HIV/AIDS virus.

Obviously, the sale of millions of unsafe vehicles to developing countries is only one part of this automotive epidemic. But it's a big part, and nobody’s doing a damn thing about it.

Reducing the damage caused by the international trade in dirty, unsafe used cars would require tough action from both sides of the equation. Countries exporting automotive death traps must dictate that any car within its borders that fails to pass its safety or emission test must either be brought up to scratch or sent to a licensed recycling facility. On the consumer side, countries importing these deadly cars must create and enforce rigorous vehicle safety and emissions legislation.

Yeah right. And while they’re at it, they should eliminate ALL government corruption. Luckily, there is some good news on the horizon…

The India Times reports UK-based Manheim Auctions and Japan’s Gulliver International are opening up shop on the Indian subcontinent. Both global used car giants plan to import a large number of properly inspected used cars into India. And no wonder. The Society of Automobile Manufacturers in India (SIAM) estimates that India’s used car market sells 1m units per year. That tally is expected to grow exponentially in the decade ahead. 

The foreign companies’ ambitions are also fueled by the fact that only 20 to 25 percent of India’s used car market is “organized,” as compared to 90 percent of markets such as The United States, Great Britain and Western Europe. The same stat holds true for other relatively undeveloped world markets.

In other words, it’s only a matter of time before large scale legal enterprises replace the patchwork of “entrepreneurs” feeding the burgeoning market for used cars in developing nations. Meanwhile, unless countries on the supply side take action, hundreds of thousands of third world motorists and pedestrians will die in or around our carelessly abandoned vehicles.

By on April 23, 2007

06_07_4runner_ltd2.jpgSo here we are, trying to convince American motorists to abandon their SUV’s for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, to do their bit to reduce global warming and eliminate the need for messy military entanglements. And along comes a scientific study from a reputable independent organization that concludes that you’re safer in an SUV than a passenger car. Nuts.

You remember that debate, don’t you? Back before carbon dioxide was a planet killer, before hurricane Katrina sent the price of gas soaring, before the Iraq war got old, the anti-SUV crowd focused their attention on safety. They highlighted the “us vs. them” SUV vs. car death match, where the guy with the morally indefensible vehicle won the right to play again. Which was unfair but true. And still is.   

Last Thursday, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released the results of a study examining death rates for drivers of 2001 to 2004 model year vehicles involved in crashes from 2002 through 2005. The results were rated by deaths per million vehicle years (DMVY).

The IIHS’ separated the vehicles into eight categories: cars, sports, luxury, specialty, station wagons, minivans, SUV’s and pickup trucks. The “deaths by body style” stats were conclusive. According to the report, large and mid-sized 4WD vehicles (47 and 59 DMVY) are safer than cars classified as mini (148), small (103), midsize (71), large (81) and very large (61).

The IIHS report also listed the vehicles with the highest and lowest driver death rates. Of the 16 “worst” vehicles rated, cars occupied 12 slots, while SUV’s garnered four places on the list (a 75 / 25 percent split). Of the 15 “best” vehicles, five cars (33 percent), seven SUV’s (47 percent) and three minivans (20 percent) made the grade. 

That said, the IIHS study rated both small and very large SUV’s appreciably more deadly than mid-sized and large SUV’s. And there are as many ways to spin interpret the IIHS data as there are media outlets happy to avoid the logical, distinctly non-PC headline “SUV’s Safer than Cars.”

CBS News compared the "death rates in passenger vehicles with similar weight" and came to a different conclusion: "Cars Still Beat SUV's In Safety." The Detroit News report avoided any SUV vs. car comparisons. Reuters touted the Ford F-150’s huge safety gains. Consumer Reports focused on the importance of driver behavior, rather than vehicle design: 

“Care should be taken when evaluating this data because there are driver factors (such as demographics and region) that might greatly affect the fatality rates per model. We believe models that appeal to a more careful driver tend to have a lower fatality rate than those that attract a more risk-prone driver.”

While it's easy to understand how the Nissan 350Z made it on the IIHS black list, it’s hard to think of Kia drivers (Spectra fourth, Rio sixth) as “thrill seekers.” No, the simple, unavoidable, inconvenient truth is that both the pro and anti-SUV campaigners were right: physics rule the day.

Corroboration comes via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHSTA) 2005 crash stats. Measuring driver fatalities in all types of crashes, SUV's were 5.2 percent safer than passenger cars. And it’s no fluke. In 2003, SUV’s out-protected cars by 5.3 percent. In 2004, the figure climbed to 6.1 percent. In 2005, it rose to 6.6 percent.

Again, there are many ways to interpret the data. If you measure non-driver fatalities, or rollover crashes, the picture changes. But there’s plenty of evidence to confirm what common sense suggests. In 2005, SUV occupants were twice as safe as passenger car occupants in front, side and rear crashes. 

The safety gap is bound to widen. Thanks to rising gas prices and changing consumer tastes, inherently dangerous jumbo-sized SUV’s are either history (e.g. Ford Excursion) or fading fast (e.g. Chevrolet TrailBlazer). Buyers of full-sized SUV’s are migrating towards smaller, lower riding and safer car-based SUV’s (a.k.a. CUV’s). And NHTSA legislation mandating electronic stability control in all SUV’s will yield significant safety gains. 

None of this is good news for environmental campaigners, most of whom favor government intervention to “persuade” Americans drivers to exchange their SUV’s for small, frugal and more dangerous vehicles. Still, one should never underestimate the zealot’s power to surmount scientific results. If SUV’s were outlawed, there wouldn’t BE a safety gap. More people will die from global warming than small car crashes. Etc.

To a certain extent, the pro-conservation, anti-SUV crowd has already won this debate, as witnessed by the fact that so few media outlets are willing to raise the safety vs. fuel economy issue. Well, consider it raised.

[Click here for IIHS report or here for USA Today's simplified chart.]

By on April 11, 2007

2006-stccestate.jpgTime and time again, automakers flush with cash decide to grow their business by expanding their model lineup. Which is a bit like trying to improve a gourmet meal by adding more menu choices. That’s not to say brand extensions can’t be done, and done well. Volvo’s XC SUV’s were a logical and successful addition to the company’s safety-themed vehicles. But a performance tuned Volvo station wagon or sedan? Uh, no. At long last, the company has reached the same conclusion— for all the wrong reasons.

Automotive News (AN) confirms that the 2007 R-Series Volvos will be the last of the breed; Volvo’s dropping performance variants from its roster. According to Volvo NA’s executive vice president of sales and retail ops, continuing to spend money on R model development, marketing and sales doesn’t make financial sense. “For the return we get,” Doug Speck told AN, “It just wasn't good enough."

Ya think? When Volvo launched the “R” sub-brand, the company estimated that 2500 examples would find buyers in the North American market on a yearly basis, helping to deliver 7k sales worldwide. Scanning AN's account of the R sub-brand's cancellation, it's clear Volvo’s been busy re-writing history downsizing their R-badged expectations. Volvo claimed it built the business case for the barking mad R-Series based on total annual sales of 3800 units. In any case, the automaker fell well short of the marque.

Last year, Ford’s Swedish subsidiary shifted just 1098 S60Rs and 538 V70Rs. As today’s V70R review indicates, there isn’t much wrong with the product itself. The problem is that “performance” and “Volvo” go together like “Porsche” and “towing capacity.” Oh wait, the Cayenne. Yes, well, the point remains the same: even great products can’t surmount a brand’s inherent limitations. At least not for long.

As Al Reis and Jack Trout wrote in their classic marketing tome “Positioning,” “the mind rejects new information that doesn’t ‘compute.’ It accepts only that new information which matches its current state of mind. It filters out everything else.” For a brand positioned in the consumer’s mind as “the ultimate driving machine,” an M-tuned 3-Series makes perfect sense. For a brand best known for protecting your family from death, a V70R is an anomaly, a cynical and forgettable joke.

While I’m delighted that there were 1098 perverted pistonheads who “got it,” it’s deeply worrying that it took Volvo’s marketing mavens 12 years– from the launch of the bright yellow T-5R wagon in 1995 to this week– to understand that building a high performance Volvo (not to mention racing it) was the branding equivalent of wearing a speedo to a PTA meeting.

Equally worrying: Ford’s hard-nosed beancounters– rather than Volvo’s executive stewards– killed the R division. In fact, Volvo CEO Redrik Arptold told AN that his employer isn’t abandoning the afterburner-oriented enthusiast market. They’re simply “deleting the moniker.” For evidence that Volvo is still interested in “fun-to-drive cars,” Arptold misdirected the reporter’s attention to the forthcoming C30 hatchback and S80 V8. "We are working on the next phase,” Arptold said, “but it will not be immediate."

Fans of the Volvo’s corporate mothership can only hope. Although Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom campaign and “fun-to-drive” products are successfully transforming the Japanese automaker’s economy car image, Volvo and Land Rover are Ford’s only truly coherent car brands. Ford is everything and nothing, Lincoln is everything and nothing with extra chrome, Mercury is nothing and Jaguar was something (and now isn’t). With environmental consciousness hemming in Land Rover, Volvo is the company’s best hope.  

While there will always be pistonheads up for accelerative and handling hotness, no one wants to die. Truth to tell, the only vehicle category that doesn’t jibe with Volvo’s built-in brand promise to preserve your genetics is… sports cars. Which means Volvo’s growth potential is virtually unlimited– provided they put this R business behind them and keep their eye on the Nerf ball. If Volvo continues to devote every possible resource, every last krona, to maintaining the company’s lead in passenger car safety, they will thrive.

So Redrik, where’s the Volvo minivan? When Ford ditched their Freestar (Windstar? Deathstar?), I felt sure they were clearing they way for a Volvo minivan, a machine that would easily conquer all before it. I mean, what Mom wouldn’t buy a Volvo minivan? Ford Flex? Yeah right. And yet Volvo’s boss is pleading with the world not to slip back into the “old” idea of boring Volvos. Because? Honestly, I don’t have a clue.

If Volvo plays its cards right, it could replace Ford. Seriously. When Ford and its amorphous product line goes belly-up, the conglomerate is free to sell– or not sell– anything they like. Which brand has more oomph in Ford’s portfolio (if not at the driven wheels) than Volvo? None.

By on February 22, 2007

red-light-large222.jpgIf patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then death is the only refuge of a camera-craving road safety campaigner. As far as these well-meaning advocates are concerned, if a single roadside surveillance device saves a single life, then it’s fully justified. Never mind scientific distinctions between “speeding” and “inappropriate speed.” Never mind government studies that place red light running near the very bottom of the list of accident causation. Never mind concerns about the erosion of personal privacy. One life trumps all.

In fact, when it comes to red light cameras, it’s 850 lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates 850 people were killed by motorists running red lights. The number looks– is– horrific, but it’s slightly less than two percent of all 2006 U.S. traffic fatalities. Throwing resources at this area of road safety seems, at best, counterintuitive.

Of course, red light cameras are one area where the money spent is dwarfed by the money the system generates for its operators– both civil AND commercial. It’s a paradigm that helped convince some 250 U.S. communities to install red light cameras, with California and Texas leading the way.

Campaigners are delighted. Richard Retting, senior transportation safety engineer for the Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) claims “the jury is in”: red light cameras save lives. But the IIHS’ recent and highly touted red light study followed a two-step approach. First, researchers extended the yellow light cycle. THEN they added red light cameras.

The study claims that violations dropped by 36% after the yellow light change, followed by a 96% reduction in the remaining violations. Yes, but– the IIHS failed to provide any data whatsoever on actual accidents.

And no wonder. In the last six years, Washington, D.C.’s red light cameras caught over 500k violators, generating some $32m in fines. The Washington Post unearthed the resulting safety stats. 

“The number of crashes at locations with cameras more than doubled, from 365 collisions in 1998 to 755 last year. Injury and fatal crashes climbed 81 percent, from 144 such wrecks to 262. Broadside crashes, also known as right-angle or T-bone collisions, rose 30 percent, from 81 to 106 during that time frame.” 

If road safety campaigners are going to manipulate data and then say it doesn’t matter because a single life may be saved, opponents should be free to discuss the camera’s impact on personal freedom without recourse to scientific fact. Because with each camera install, no matter how “good” the case for a particular system may be, we lose a bit of our freedom.

Make no mistake: red light cameras and fixed speed cameras raise important constitutional questions. Does the presumption of innocence that forms the backbone of our judicial system extend to electronic surveillance? How can it be argued that a camera monitoring the speed and/or position of every car that passes does NOT violate that tenet?

A Georgia car owner who swears they weren’t driving when their car was caught by a red light camera can sign an affidavit to that effect, and avoid the fine. But they must also name the person who ran the light. What happened to their right to remain silent?

The Constitution of the United States specifically prohibits the government from conducting “indiscriminate search and seizure.” What could be more indiscriminate than a red light camera watching every single car that passes?

How about a live video camera that monitors the speed of every single car that passes? Or one that can instantly read and identify every license plate, connected to a network of such devices?

Ask the people of Great Britain. The government is adding hundreds of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras to their roadway system– complementing the tens of thousands of surveillance cameras installed in virtually every municipality in the entire country. Great Britain is now the most surveilled country on the face of planet earth– and their road safety is decreasing.

Now that the English are finally rebelling against the “safety camera” system, the government is sure to change tack and switch to video speed cameras. They can then claim the cameras are an important aid to anti-terrorism. But it can also be argued that red light, fixed speed, surveillance and ANPR cameras are a slippery slope to government tyranny.

Years ago, I was setting up computers for a training session for local police detectives. We talked about the burgeoning on-line world, replete with stalkers and all the rest of what’s truly bad about the ‘Net. As I was about to leave, I naively remarked to one detective: “Well, I don’t do anything wrong, so I’ve nothing to hide.” His reply woke me from my innocent mental slumber: “Don’t be so quick to give up your freedoms.”

By on January 14, 2007

7-8-03222.jpgAllstate is currently blanketing the videosphere with ads touting “accident forgiveness.” Watching Allstate's viscious vérité, my mind drifted to our prodigal curmudgeon and part-time EMT. I wondered how Stephan Wilkinson would categorize the causation of the twisted metal carnage he's encountered: “accidental,” “avoidable” or just “brain dead stupid?” Allstate's willingness to forgive accidents sounds all warm and fuzzy, but given the potential advantages of apportioning blame, is it really such a good idea?

I remember following a speeding (precapitalization) Mini in my Mazda RX4. No sweat. I knew the route so well I could’ve driven it blindfolded. Which was just as well. The two lane blacktop was shrouded in dense fog. I knew Mini man wasn’t local, and so, heading for trouble. Sure enough, he missed the corner entirely, drove straight into the barrier, bounced across the road and smashed into a wall.

No one was hurt. But if they had been, they wouldn’t have had my sympathy. I’m not an anti-speeding zealot (far from it). I simply believe that anyone who drives "faster than conditions allow” (weather, car, road, traffic, etc.) is responsible for what happens next.

Taking that a step further, if the Mini had bounced across the road into the path of another vehicle, I would hope that the car coming from the opposite direction would be aware that drivers in the fog might cross into his or her lane, especially in a tight turn, and be prepared to take evasive action.

At the other end of the spectrum: Mrs. Wilkinson’s accident. As previously chronicled by SW, she was stationed in her proper lane when her car was rear ended by an inattentive SUV driver. Calling that collision, or the Mini's crash, an “accident” is a complete misnomer. Both events were entirely avoidable.

Which brings us back to Allstate’s forgiveness offer. While the ads show horrific incidents involving entirely blameless drivers, the copy expressly states that policy holders’ rates won’t go up “even if it’s your fault.” In that case, shouldn't we be seeing these accidents from the other driver's perspective: the idiot who caused the collision? He's the guy who really needs Allstate's largesse.

Now I could bang on about the wider cultural issue: society’s move away from any clear notion of personal responsibility, towards the vague idea that we should “forgive” people for the “accidental” consequences of their bone-headed behavior. But I want to stick to the automotive realm.

What would stop Allstate from investigating an accident and determining a suitable penalty— or reward— for their policy holder's driving? In other words, if a collision wasn’t your fault, your rate wouldn't increase. If it was, a rate increase and mandatory (and meaningful) driver’s ed would follow.

Of course, the government’s supposed to be responsible for identifying and punishing bad driving. Clearly, in the majority of cases, this isn’t happening. While accident investigation has become a reputable and reliable science, the instigators of avoidable, non-fatal accidents seldom face investigation, suspension or remedial education.

Even more worrying, police officers are happy to point speed guns at hapless motorists driving well within the realm of safety (no matter what the speed limit sign says), but seem strangely reticent to ticket motorists for sloppy and/or inattentive driving. Time and again, I've seen drivers commit moving violations right in front of a police cruiser without any reaction whatsoever from the officers [who may or may not be] watching. 

According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. traffic deaths reached a 15-year high in 2005: 43,200. Obviously, the stat must be seen in context of the huge increase in total passenger miles traveled. But the fact remains that many of these accidents were caused by motorists who lacked the skills needed to avoid them. Or, to put it more bluntly, crap driving. Someone somewhere should be held accountable.

The driver is, obviously, first. I reckon any state that doesn’t permanently ban a driver convicted of vehicular homicide is criminally negligent for any later injury. Next up: the people responsible for training these lousy drivers. Driver’s ed needs to be state-regulated, with a pass rate no higher than 60%.

Then the licensing authorities must answer for their actions. Then, perhaps, law enforcement should be taken to task (for not catching the killer drivers earlier). Then, maybe, the legal system should face inquiry (how many times have these murderous drivers been “in the system”?).

For their part, the insurance industry has decided to stay above the fray and paint themselves as the safe driver’s friend. And yet they’re more than willing to "forgive" the ones that aren’t safe. In truth, Allstate's no-fault forgiveness policy tells potential customers “Never mind that you drive like an idiot and could kill someone. Let's just call your smash a Mulligan." That’s Allstate’s stand. What’s yours?

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