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Posts from the Distracted Driving Category


SF’s Freeway-Like Streets Increase the Risk From Distracted Drivers

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Image: Zendrive

Image: Zendrive

Distracted driving in SF is no accident. A new map of cell phone use by drivers in SF reveals where drivers are most likely to use a mobile device, increasing the risk of crashes and injuries, and the pattern is unmistakable.

There’s one thing that streets with high rates of distracted driving have in common: They’re designed like freeways.

According to the map created by Zendrive, which “measures driving safety using only the sensors on a driver’s phone,” the streets with the most mobile device use by drivers were overwhelmingly designed as routes to freeways, leading to on-ramps and off-ramps, especially along the Central Freeway that divides the South of Market and Mission districts.

Sections of Duboce, Folsom, Eighth, 10th, and the interchange at Brannan and Division Streets all ranked in the top 10 of distracted driving streets.

Also high up the list were Fell and Oak Streets and 19th Avenue, which act as surface highways. Fell and Oak whisk west side drivers to and from the Central Freeway, and have synchronized traffic signals so drivers don’t have to worry about stopping often.

It stands to reason that wide, multi-lane streets designed to lull drivers into “cruise-control” mode fail to keep their attention. As Tom Vanderbilt wrote in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, “The relative ease of most driving lures us into thinking we can get away with doing other things.

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AAA: Hands-Free Devices Don’t Solve Distracted Driving Dangers

Researchers at the University of Utah and AAA found that using hands-free electronic devices and on-board technology can cause dangerous levels of driver distraction. Image: AAA

Distracted driving killed 3,331 people on American streets in 2011, yet car manufacturers continue to outdo each other to add more infotainment distractions in their vehicles. These systems are expected to increase five-fold by 2018, according to AAA. Carmakers seek to show their commitment to safety by making their distractions – onboard dinner reservation apps and social media, for example – hands-free. But a growing body of research indicates that there is no safe way to combine driving with tasks like dictating email or text messages.

AAA recently teamed up with experts at the University of Utah to conduct the most in-depth analysis to date of the impact of cognitive distractions on drivers’ performance. They found that some hands-free technologies, like voice-to-text email, can be far more dangerous than even handheld phone conversations. Unlike previous studies, they also found that conversations with passengers can be more distracting than those on the phone, but only if the passenger is kept unaware of what’s happening on the road.

The researchers had subjects first perform a series of eight tasks, ranging from nothing at all to usage of various electronic devices to something called OSPAN, or operation span, which sets the maximum demand the average adult brain can handle. For the OSPAN, the researchers gave subjects words and math problems to recall later, in the same order, as a way to “anchor the high end of the cognitive distraction scale developed by the research team,” according to AAA’s Jake Nelson.

The more mental energy an activity requires, the more it slows drivers' reaction time. Image: AAA

The subjects then performed these eight tasks while operating a driving simulator, and then while driving on residential streets in an “instrumented” vehicle that captures information about the driver’s eye movements and brain activity.

In each environment, researchers studied how the additional tasks added to subjects’ “cognitive workload” and diminished their eye movements. They found that as drivers devote more mental energy to other tasks in addition to driving, the less observant they become, and the more they fail to scan for roadway hazards.

This bolsters the conclusions of previous experiments: that when drivers are mentally distracted by some other task, they get tunnel vision. They keep their eyes fixed on the road in front of them to the exclusion of everything else — the rear-view mirror, side mirrors, and “safety critical roadside objects” and “cross traffic threats” — such as pedestrians.

The AAA study also found that greater “cognitive workloads” slow drivers’ reactions to events like a ball rolling in front of the car and a kid running out to catch it. (Reaction times were measured with the simulator, not the instrumented vehicle driving on real streets.)

The researchers conclude that hands-free communications can be significantly more distracting and dangerous for drivers to engage in than passive tasks like listening to music:

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Is SFPD Serious About Cracking Down on Distracted Driving?

SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali (right) and SF District Attorney George Gascón. Photo: Aaron Bialick

SF District Attorney George Gascón and SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali held a press conference last Thursday to bring attention to distracted driving, since April is officially National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

It’s promising to see law enforcement officials bring attention to this deadly and growing problem on San Francisco streets. What remains to be seen, however, is whether drivers who kill and maim others are being held accountable with thorough police crash investigations and prosecuted by the DA’s office when they’re at fault.

While SF stats on traffic crashes attributed to distracted driving aren’t available, the CA Highway Patrol says that nationally, it was a factor in 3,331 deaths and over 400,000 injuries in 2011. The Centers for Disease Control released a study last month finding that 68.7 percent of U.S. adult drivers (aged 18–64) admitted in surveys to talking on their cell phones while driving at least once in the past 30 days — far more than those in European countries. In the United Kingdom, only 20.5 percent said they had done so.

Gascón explained that data from the SF Municipal Transportation Agency shows that 60 percent of pedestrian injures in San Francisco take place in crosswalks, compared to 45 percent statewide, and 44 percent in New York City.

“Clearly, here, we’re having a much bigger problem. It’s a problem that’s impacting many lives,” said Gascón. “We’re having not only around 20 pedestrians that are being killed every year on our streets, we have well in excess of 700 pedestrians that are injured every year.” (The Department of Public Health puts the number of injuries closer to 900.)

“We need to work together to make sure we reduce the mayhem that is going on on our streets,” added Gascón.

Commander Ali said SFPD officers have beefed up enforcement against distracted driving throughout April, but that stats on violations and ticketing won’t be available until the end of the month.

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe applauded Gascón and the SFPD “for cracking down on people that are endangering others by driving distracted.” Still, she said, “It’s hard to know if everyone’s been held to account for endangering, and in many cases, killing people walking.”

So far this year, seven pedestrians have been killed in San Francisco, and at least three of the drivers in those have been charged because they were either drunk or fleeing police. But in cases in which drivers were sober and stayed on the scene, like the crashes that killed Becky Lee, Tania Madfes, and Melissa Kitson, causes remain less clear, and there’s no word on whether those drivers face charges.

Streetsblog has a request in with the DA’s office for how many of this year’s pedestrian crash cases have been forwarded from the SFPD to the DA, but has yet to hear back. As we’ve reported, drivers rarely face charges for injuring pedestrians unless the victim dies and the driver was intoxicated or fled the scene.

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Driver Injures Bike Rider at Fell and Lyon Streets, No Citation Issued

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Photos: Aaron Bialick

A man was hit by a driver while riding his bike across Fell Street at Lyon Thursday night at approximately 9:40 pm. The victim, 25, appeared to have just entered the crosswalk from a pathway on the Panhandle when the driver, a 30-year-old woman, hit him from the side.

Police said the victim was lucid and his condition was not serious, though he was transported to San Francisco General Hospital for minor injuries. Park Station Captain John Feeney said a citation would not be issued because the victim’s condition was not life-threatening and the driver stayed on the scene and called 911.

According to officers at the scene, the driver said she was driving in the left lane in search of a parking space when the bicyclist appeared in front of her car unexpectedly. The driver and bicyclist gave conflicting stories about who had the red light, and other witnesses were not available to testify. Feeney said the bicyclist would not be faulted and that it would be treated as an “accident.”

Fell, a one-way street that acts as a four-lane residential freeway alongside a major bike route on the Panhandle, is known for its dangerous conditions and high volumes of car traffic. Possible factors in the crash include poor visibility hindered by cars parked next to the crosswalk as well as the driver’s speed. An officer questioning her was overheard saying the size of the victim’s impact on the windshield indicated that she “must have been going pretty fast.”

See more photos after the break.

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Dramatic Rise in SFPD Citations to Drivers Without Licenses

San Francisco police officers issued twice as many tickets to drivers operating without a license between January and May this year than they did for all of 2010, according to data from the SF Police Department (SFPD). The spike contrasts with an overall drop in traffic violations.

“I think it’s important to feel like there is active enforcement going on when people drive in a way that endangers other people,” said Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe. “It’s good to be paying attention to these numbers.”

In the first five months of 2011, police issued 3,271 citations for driving without a license compared to 1,616 issued in 2010.

SFPD Captain Al Casciato, head of the Traffic Bureau, said he couldn’t explain the jump, and that officers haven’t been targeting license-less drivers. He suspected that there may be more drivers on the road with suspended licenses due to late payments in a tough economy, although suspended license violations are categorized separately in the data.

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To Limit Distracted Driving, Congress Leans Toward a Carrot-Stick Combo

Partisanship is a fact of life in Washington, often slowing down progress on issues from health care to climate change. But when it comes to preventing the use of electronic devices behind the wheel, a congressional consensus is emerging in favor of federal action -- even as the extent of GOP support for a punitive approach remains decidedly unclear.

At the Senate Commerce Committee's Wednesday hearing on distracted driving, lawmakers focused on the choice between offering grant money to states that pass laws banning texting while driving, as proposed by committee chairman Jay Rockefeller, and threatening to withhold federal highway money from states that fail to pass the same type of laws, as proposed by a group of Democrats in July.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who has signed on to both the "carrot" and "stick" strategies, told the Commerce panel that he believes a hybrid of the two bills would be most effective: "It's my hope and belief that in the end, we'll have a bill that combines the best of both worlds."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appeared to concur, testifying that "I like both" the incentive-based and punitive plans. The latter approach has yet to attract GOP co-sponsors, however, and the committee's top Republican said she could only support a distracted driving bill that would not withhold state funding.

"I don't think we ought to get into states' rights," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who is campaigning for her state's governorship next year, said. "[T]he states have addressed this in very different ways, but many of them are addressing it."

Vernon Betkey, chairman of the Governors' Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which represents state highway officials, echoed Hutchison's stance in a Thursday appearance before the House transportation committee.

"The association has never approved of sanctions," Betkey said. "We're always more from an incentive side, than the sanction side. And ... we work for the states that would be sanctioned, so it would be very hard for us to take a position against our own states."

Hutchison is one of three Republican co-sponsors of Rockefeller's distracted driving bill, giving the trio potentially significant leverage as a compromise plan is drafted. The competing Senate proposal, based on the 1984 law that aimed to set the minimum U.S. drinking age at 21, would give states two years to restrict drivers from texting and using hand-held cell phones.



Making Employers Liable For Their Distracted Drivers

Today one of our Streetsblog Network members picks up on some ideas in the latest New York Times article about distracted driving, which focused on workers who multitask in their cars using a variety of electronic devices. The Chicago Bicycle Advocate,
which is written by a personal injury attorney, says that only the
threat of liability for employers may be able to influence this
frightening trend:

3647897679_e061120127.jpgPhoto by poka0059 via Flickr.

The pressure that many employees, both white collar and
blue, feel to respond to work emails, phone calls and text messages
while on the road may be far more compelling than the remote risk of
being ticketed for doing so. One way to compel employers to institute
cell phone bans is to put them on notice that a failure to institute
such a policy could hit them hard where it hurts, in the purse. We have
reached a point where the dangers of driving while using a cell phone
are so thoroughly documented and well understood that use of a cell
phone while driving should support a cause of action for willful and
wanton misconduct. An employee who causes an accident due to
inattention from cell phone use that results in serious injury or death
should result in the employer being held liable to pay very substantial punitive damages to the victim or the victim’s family. In my opinion, existing Illinois law supports this proposition.…

More from the network: The WashCycle celebrates the opening of the new Bike Station at Washington’s Union Station by asking where the next one should go. New Haven Safe Streets Coalition has a post about the importance of free broadband access for all citizens — and how that relates to safe streets. And on the Dallas Transportation Blog, readers are talking about the possibility of French involvement in Texas high speed rail.

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Obama Bans Texting While Driving for Guv Workers — And There’s More

The U.S. DOT's distracted driving summit came to a close today with the unveiling of an executive order from President Obama that prohibits federal employees from texting behind the wheel of a government car or using a government-provided messaging device while driving any vehicle.

In addition, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced plans for three new regulations that set the stage for an eventual nationwide ban on texting behind the wheel.

The first forthcoming DOT rule would permanently bar the use of cell phones or text-messaging devices by rail operators. The second would ban texting and "restrict the use of cell phones" by truck and interstate bus drivers. The final rule would revoke the commercial driver's licenses of any school bus driver found to be texting behind the wheel.

The three proposed rules and the executive order signal that LaHood is prepared to back up his criticism of distracted driving with concrete action. In a statement on the Obama executive order, LaHood said the federal government "is leading by example."

But the second of the DOT's future rules is sure to provoke a lobbying firestorm by the trucking industry, which already has put the Obama administration on notice that it views a nationwide ban as "overkill." And truckers could win exemptions for their on-board computers before the full text of the trucking rule -- no pun intended -- is released.

And it's worth watching what role the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) plays in the debate over banning texting for drivers of large commercial vehicles, which are responsible for an estimated 5,000 deaths every year. The FMSCA has known for three years that cell phone use by drivers poses a demonstrable safety risk, but it never issued regulations on the practice -- and the Obama administration's nominee to take over the agency is herself a former trucking industry lobbyist.