Thoughts on recent AAA Foundation "safety culture" observations

A semi-open letter to AAA Foundation personnel

I'm a member of AAA, the Southern New England branch (AAASNE). The club publishes a monthly newsletter called "Horizons", and the November 2013 issue carried a front page above-the-fold headline on a "troubling" downward shift in traffic safety awareness. The article contained a summary of a recent AAA Foundation study on the public's views about what they term "safety culture" -- the general level of attention and concern among the populace toward vehicle and road safety and better prevention of collisions and incidents through improved driver behavior. The article (copied here for reference) notes a perceptible downward trend since 2009 or so in how much people seem to actively care about traffic safety.

While that is arguably disturbing on its own, is there really any question as to why it's trending this way? There are some completely obvious root causes.

First, the stated timeframe of this downward slide can be almost exactly correlated with the rise of the smartphone -- those devices that so many users seem completely married to nowadays and cannot live without. While phones and texting/messaging have been a clear problem for longer than that, the new phones themselves contain many more distractions to take a driver's mind off the road -- even applications which claim to be intended for *helping* drivers navigate and get information they need. What everyone's apparently missing is that the process itself of using such features is a major problem. Besides the well-known issues with carrying on a voice conversation while driving, now that little surrogate brain will beep and call attention to itself not just on a call or a text message, but when email is received, a friend's facebook page is updated, stock quotes reach a certain threshold, rain appears on the weather-map, or whatever. More basic is that today's drivers are not effectively encouraged to silence or disable all of that interaction when they need to be fully dedicated to the process of driving.

Or as a piece in Mother Jones puts it, "there's a completely new culture out there".

But maybe it's not really so new. For quite a while now, American society has been soaked in a cultural soup of self-righteous superiority and aggression on the roads. The automakers are in large part at fault here, always promoting speed and power and whatever ersatz sense of "authority" or betterment their products aim to give consumers. Driving is not seen or presented as the fairly utilitarian task it should be -- it has to be "fun" in some way, and that invariably implies abrupt and/or aggressive behavior that somehow elevates one's own merit above other road users. By their thinking, driving can't possibly be interesting or engaging unless it involves rapid acceleration and braking and maneuvers that gain some notion of short-term advantage over others -- quicker, stronger, more agile, etc. Not to mention being freely able to use all your electronic toys at the same time. While this does tie in somewhat with certain unfortunate aspects of human nature, it is a fatal attitude that brings on far too much competition on the highways. It has been culturally instilled in us at such a basic and widespread level that a few surveys across a narrow field cannot reveal the larger picture. The only nod toward safety we really see from the automakers has been installing more air bags and passenger-cabin reinforcement, which is the completely wrong answer and only serves to worsen the attitudes with false security. At the same time they themselves are adding even more driver distractions by building a lot of those same brain-sucking electronic features straight into the car dashboards, only compounding the problem already inherent in the phones.

Drivers in this country thus run around with a far greater sense of entitlement and the dangerous illusion that they have the right to do whatever they want on the roads and a duty to assert how much better than others they are -- even when impaired. The results are pretty clear, as we see not only a steady increase in aggressive and downright stupid behavior, but increasing public acceptance that it's okay to be that way. This is the essence of what the Foundation is calling out, and is also exactly why your close friends who are normally the nicest people you'd ever want to meet turn into total animals behind the wheel and think nothing is wrong. They have been told to be like this from babyhood, and pervasive peer pressure hasn't discouraged them or given them any desire to improve. Out of their cars and in person they'll often reflect on how scary the traffic is, but they seem to be far less discerning or willing to take individual action or responsibility when they're actually mixed up in it.

Modern driver education in the US makes very little effort to defuse this, as we continue to churn out license holders demonstrably deficient in safety skills and we do nothing to instill the correct psychological profiles into these younger impressionable minds. If we required new drivers to go through even a tenth of the training rigor and personal verification that, say, private pilots do, we would already be far better off. How often do we see airplanes tailgating each other and cutting off airfield traffic to get to a runway ahead of some other flight? If anybody actually tried that without having a provable emergency situation, their flying privilege would be history within seconds of touching down. Or -- if air crashes, as rarely as they happen, are viewed with such widespread public horror then why are we so blind and inured to the far more numerous road vehicle incidents unless it's directly personal? We need to develop a society that places deliberate improper operation of *any* class of vehicle into the same bad bucket, and start calling offensive behavior out as it is -- bullying, terrorism, assault, or whatever else you want to name it. And to begin actively handling and preventing its occurence, as well as addressing the underlying thought process. The Europeans already have a much better handle on this than we do, not only with more rigorous testing to pass before a license is issued but also training their drivers in better efficiency techniques which leads to safer operation overall.


So one comment I'd make to AAA Foundation and their observable recent activities -- get out of the ivory tower, and back onto the roads. You did that around 1996 when starting to study the developing road-rage problem -- on the website you even present some great videos from back then, where you hit the highway with a *state trooper* who's almost terrified to drive the Interstates in an unmarked car because of what invariably happens around him. You illustrate the DC beltway, I-495, as a hotbed of bad behavior, which I completely agree with as I've been through that mess my own share of times. But I've also done three or four roadtrips all across and around the country over the last few years and can assure any reader that it's the same everywhere -- it's the American driving culture, and in real life "safety" seems to rate pretty low on the list when you just see what people do to each other. I invite you to come up and try out our stretch of I-84 between New York and Boston just for a little more perspective.

As a hybrid driver these days and well-attuned to traffic dynamics and the work of enthusiasts who strive for efficiency and good fuel economy, I've definitely become a "right lane" kind of guy -- leaving plenty of distance around me where possible and doing my utmost to accomodate what other drivers need at critical places like on-ramps and intersections. Cooperative rather than competitive behavior like this is supported and emphasized by major truck-driver training programs like the Smith System as a primary means toward collision avoidance, even if a certain portion of truckers get more caught up in the culture of aggression than they should. By and large, and perhaps to the amazement of some of my acquaintances, the cautious and unhurried approach with large openings ahead works out quite well for me -- I get where I'm going to in about the same timeframe as everyone else, and help a bunch of other people in the process. However, while I can control the safety and proximity situation ahead of my own car and to a good extent to the sides, I cannot toward the rear when aggression presents itself from behind. This is when the model breaks down, and as you can imagine it does so quite frequently -- not because of any particular slowness or the like on my part, but because of the attitudes of drivers who see everyone else as in their way. What happens then is that I am placed in an unsafe situation (being tailgated) against my will, which I find largely intolerable because it *is* dangerous to me and persistent in nature. And guess what, it's also a distraction, as it cannot be ignored. It is in fact a direct threat to my well-being and property, and must be handled.

So I watched several of those "road rage" videos and thought deeply about my own behavior and attitudes on the road. I don't really care about "cutoffs" or other typical triggering interactions -- especially with the generous amount of following distance I maintain, there is rarely any close-quarters cutoff to worry about in the first place. But assault from the rear is something we mostly cannot do anything to soften or mitigate as it's usually with more traffic ahead and we can't do something like try to go faster. It bothers me, because it's so common and because it's hard to defend against. Is that road rage on my part? How should I be expected to "just let it go", when I'm travelling normally and that guy is still right there on my butt and there's nowhere I can go to get away from him? And almost everyone I mention this to complains about enduring the exact same situation. To some extent I have come up with my own amusing answer to this pervasive problem, at the slight risk of having it misjudged as some sort of escalation.

Study and solutions

While I'm just a random guy from Boston and nowhere near the caliber of Tom Vanderbilt or Leonard Evans and others who write extensively on traffic safety, I have put my own share of words on the subject out there on the internet and try to point to further resources as I find them. (Start here.) One document in particular, on the yuppie button, describes my personal efforts to "stand up to bullying". For the most part it succeeds -- it works toward being able to control distance to the rear along with the other directions, even if it is only advisory in nature. You probably want to skip over the technical and wiring specifics in that article, but do pay attention to the philosophy, history and observations as they form yet more commentary on this widespread social degeneration I constantly see on the roads. The method takes the unusual step of communicating with other drivers, something that the typical advice about "road rage" says to avoid, but I belive a distinction needs to be made between cause and effect, between offense and defense, and inter-vehicle notification to correct a specific safety violation. As mentioned it's difficult or impossible to control the situation behind when someone else arbitrarily decides to put me in harm's way for no reason, but even the NHTSA has begun exploring the merits of changing that in a safety context. Ironically, I'm ten-plus years ahead of where they are and I don't get funded to do any of this.

An important point Evans makes in his book "Traffic Safety" (chapter 16) is that driving is a public activity done in public spaces, and drivers are not nearly as anonymous as they might think. Identifying marks are mandated on all vehicles and the bottom line is that everyone is personally accountable for their actions; the rest is a question of what's acceptable and what's penalized. My take on it is that if someone behaves unacceptably while driving in any sort of *professional* capacity, they incur greatly increased liability and in extreme cases of abuse I do collect some information and call it in to company safety managers and owners. In *no* instance have they ever rebuffed my efforts or supported bad behavior on the part of their employees, and are generally grateful for reports from the road that help them improve their own safety stats. We need more concerned motorists to make these efforts, and here's one area where those modern electronic devices can help. A quick photograph of a vehicle instantly captures all the details needed to then safely stop somewhere and file a report, and sometimes the circumstances visible in the picture can be valuable training aids to the organizations themselves.

The motoring public isn't the only entity that can gain from appropriate use of electronic tools. In-car video recorders, aka "dashcams", have become very sophisticated -- high resolution realtime imagery that is inexpensive and easy to use. Law enforcement already relies on dash video to collect evidence and assure proper procedure during traffic stops and other incidents. Many Russian drivers now find the 'cams essential to prove collision circumstances to their insurance companies who otherwise deny claims -- a sad statement on their administrative structure, perhaps, but a creative solution to a widespread problem. Now, consider the dashcam along with the idea of red-light cameras and photo speed enforcement, and you have a clear path to an elegant solution: photographic citations issued to owners of record, for which there is already plenty of precedent, but now in which offending vehicles need only have about ten seconds of their behavior and proximity captured as ample evidence of aggression toward others. From a nearby lane, a video scan down that typical "conga line" in the left lane of an interstate could produce a dozen high-value tickets in a couple of minutes without any need for traffic stops. There is enough visual information in such a segment to yield solid identification and substantial proof that safe distance and control were not established or maintained -- solely through the actions of a following driver. Police officers need to get themselves out of the long-time rut of issuing 99% of their traffic citations for excessive speed (on empty open highways?!), and explore new opportunities to genuinely serve and protect.

But to exist and be effective, such procedures would need sufficient support at the political and legal level to classify the behavior we see every day as the flat-out reckless endangerment it needs to be viewed as. With the backing of a larger segment of society and its leaders, semi-automated penalties for obvious aggression and inattention on the roads could provide a significant revenue source -- for a while, at least, until drivers became more accustomed to the duty they have to each others' safety and begin to actually wise up and change. It would be an investment in ourselves, with a large potential payback in the near-term financial and longer-term cultural sense and stress reduction. Mind, I'm not suggesting a purely punitive approach here -- such efforts would have to include high-profile information campaigns and plenty of warning that things were going to start changing at the highest levels. Many drivers are simply stuck in bad habits and don't even have a clear idea when they are too close to each other, because they were never informed on what's safe and/or never figured it out for themselves. How do we work toward innate understanding of the three-second rule as ubiquitous as "click it"? Society learns and adapts from large-scale change; there's no reason we can't do it here as Europe is already doing to a large extent. *That* would be pervasive and effective "safety culture", nothing less.

Perhaps a near-future AAA Foundation study should be on what people believe is safe following distance, or if they have internalized any concept of it at all. Or what a good lane change should involve, or if they know the right way to merge at a squeeze or an on-ramp. AAAF could spearhead a leadership role in getting the correct guidelines into broad public view, in conjunction with helping make it clear that there are thousands of new electronic sheriffs in town and nobody is immune to external scrutiny of their own actions. And people need to start viewing license revocation as a very real possibility, and re-learn that they never had or will have a *right* to drive no matter what kind of hardships they might plead. They must either earn their privilege of motor vehicle operation, or restructure their lives so they don't require it to survive.

In other words, it's time to stop surveying and start solving, for all the positive or negative aspects that carries. Greater progress can be made on education, using facts that most of us are already painfully aware of. I would love to see the Foundation become far more active at the legislative and law-enforcement level, bringing the issues to the foreground thinking of the people who can make those beneficial changes. What do we see, for example, on national-level television that genuinely supports a cooperative driving environment? Zip. A few short spots about DUI, perhaps, but all that says is "don't do this one specific thing". It doesn't broaden our view to the entire extent of the societal problem or get sober drivers questioning their own handling of normal daily traffic. How about working with automakers to collectively encourage thoughtful, efficient use of their products intead of as a mechanism to get ahead of the pack? In my mind, a "foundation for traffic safety" should be taking a much more active role to achieve what it collectively knows is right. That's a type of organization I might actually feel an inclination to donate to, as opposed to one just floating on a thin tissue of a few public surveys or Drivecam stats with relatively unusable results. Seriously, pull back that nine million you've been gambling away in the stock market and apply it where it can start having greater effect.

On the wireless-device distractions problem, any number of proposed schemes have emerged to "enforce" non-use of cell phones and devices during driving but none have received serious enough support to be implemented. The major carriers have a lot of control over a phone's functionality, including having a very clear idea of its location and speed even without built-in GPS functionality. If the electronics industry can impose something as meaningless and annoying as DVD regionalization and have the majority of consumers just accept it, why not have common wisdom become that a phone traveling through the cellular cloud at the speeds that vehicles achieve will simply stop working for a while? Even a passenger having a conversation can be argued as a needeless distraction in a moving vehicle, because frankly it is. Sure, there would be a public uproar about industry changes that profound but if it has core backing and people get the idea that their phones simply don't communicate when moving too fast, we're well on the way toward solving that problem. Did drivers complain about seat belt beepers and pollution controls? Sure, but those things are still with us. Perhaps if certain methodologies and situations of phone use are determined to be sufficiently safe, only devices conforming to that spec would be allowed to continue functioning at speed. Technology can also provide allowances for situations like public transit or even weather conditions that cause false location readings. Sure, I'll be the first to admit that this is somewhat fringe thinking but what's our alternative? Unenforced laws on device usage don't fix anything, and what we're seeing now is only going to get worse if left unchecked.

Even in the absence of technological deterrence, almost certainly phone/network records should be immediately consulted and preserved in the event of an incident to determine if distracting device abuse was a contributing causative factor. Some of that is done now but only in extreme cases because obstructionist defenses that it's "invasive" are not laughed out of court; such checks should become routine enough that all users think twice about what sending or even reading that text while on the move could do to the future of their freedom.

Go play in traffic

So for anyone at AAA Foundation who still doesn't quite get where our motoring society stands today and why, I can only suggest this: go back out there on your beloved Beltway, or even your local surface streets. Be as patient and courteous and accomodating to others as you are able, and just look around you. Especially in the rearview. Maybe you already do that every day, but if you've read this far you may start to think a little differently about what you see. What do you figure would happen if people were behaving like that while strolling around at the county fair? The cops would be breaking up fights every five minutes, that's what. This video illustrates it really well. We do know better, we all understand those unspoken rules about order and personal space because we had the framework of polite society drilled into us it all through childhood. We need to extend that to our driving as well, but it's going to take strong and sensible leadership to start turning things around.

I eagerly await your next phase of reporting.

_H*   131031


  A few more real-life vignettes for AAAF staff or anyone else to ponder:
  • What are you doing that will change what happens when that young hot-blooded contractor fella in the loud pickup truck is clinging to my ass all the way around the I-93 onramp in Woburn MA, after which he yanks it past me so hard toward the left lane that he almost clobbers the poor girl in the Camry who is just coming past the merge point?
  • Where are you when the Estes driver with the triple-trailer wiggle-wagon is trying to park his rig in my back seat on our way through the Ohio flatlands at well *above* the posted speed limit?
  • What are you going to tell the Con-Way driver who can't abide the idea that someone is pulling a long West Virginia hill in the same leisurely fashion as he will be doing in another quarter-mile? Where is it written that a car can't exhibit the same power-to-weight ratio as a loaded semi, or might simply be taking in the local sights? What authorizes any professional to not bother accounting for any of a hundred valid reasons another vehicle might be going a little slower? Does your answer change if we're going over Loveland Pass instead?
  • What's going on back in DC while I'm watching the commuters ahead of me on I-84 west of Hartford change lanes by diving abruptly in and out of car-and-a-half long spaces on the erroneous notion that the other lane is moving half an MPH faster? They screw up the flow for everybody else and don't even realize what they're doing.
  • How do *you* personally handle looking in your rearview and all you can see is truck grille?