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About the Author
His first book, Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens has received rave reviews from parents and reviewers for its practical approach to teaching teen drivers.
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The Driving Challenge
Dare to Be Safer and Happier on the Road
By Phil Berardelli
D Street BooksCopyright © 2011 Phil Berardelli
All rights reserved.
A National Plague
For a decade now, war and terrorism have dominated our public discourse. Even those not intensely interested in those topics have at least followed the daily news reports about what has been happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. People who do not keep up don't boast about it, because they don't want to be regarded as uniformed or foolish. The subjects are too important for anyone to risk proclaiming ignorance.
That's proper. What happens in this struggle will affect us as a nation and each of us as individuals — if for no other reason than our tax dollars are going to support what the government is doing to try to protect us.
But another aspect of everyday life threatens us just as much as terrorism. It costs much more but for some reason it receives almost no publicity, public discourse or individual attention — even though it can be just as lethal as a terror attack and has killed far more citizens than all of the wars our country ever fought.
This strain of violence pervades our streets, roads and highways, but it isn't the work of terrorists. It is caused by ordinary, usually well-intentioned people who become impaired with alcohol or drugs, who disobey speed limits, stop signs, traffic lights and lane markers, and who routinely ignore other rules of the road, not to mention the basics of common courtesy.
I'm talking about drivers.
The greater the volume of traffic, and the higher the speed, the more drivers seem to engage in this dangerous behavior. Part of it is directed by a kind of herd mentality: "Everybody else is doing it. Why shouldn't I?"
Here is another popular refrain: "I'm just keeping up with traffic."
Most of the time, the results are harmless — unless you consider civil society and standards of responsibility as victims. The only things shattered are the air — by the sounds of racing motors and contact of wheels with pavement — and the nerves of bystanders. When collisions occur, the damage is often minor, just dented sheet metal and snarled traffic.
Sometimes, though, the behavior results in physical injury or even death. In some instances — much too often — the harm is intentional, willed by someone's emotions run out of control. Something small manages to escalate with frightening suddenness.
It has become a numbingly familiar routine: Two motorists meet on the highway, one somehow provokes the other, and pretty soon what should have been a small irritation turns into an uncontrolled duel — or even outright murder. Perhaps innocent parties die.
Extreme cases make sensational headlines, each story more outrageous than the next. Motorists entangled in seemingly minor encounters discover to their horror that they're confronted with life-and-death situations, sometimes containing unbelievable viciousness. One notorious incident involving two suburban women happened outside Birmingham, Alabama, back in the late 1990s. One shot and killed the other after a traffic dispute. Such episodes have caused the term "road rage" to enter our culture.
But concentrating on the monstrous deeds sells the issue short, relegating it to the stuff of tabloids or trash TV. The reports may shock or sicken us — and make us afraid — but they still seem remote from our own lives. We remain comfortable thinking we're doing nothing to contribute to the problem.
That enormous delusion encompasses millions and millions of us. The bulk of the problem out there, while less sensational, is much more pervasive and no less deadly. It is caused by people who normally wouldn't think of harming another human being. Yet their behavior, along with the behavior of that smaller-but-nastier group, affects every person each and every time he or she ventures onto the highways — as a driver or a passenger.
For a sense of comparison, let's look at some numbers. For five years, from March of 2003 when the invasion of Iraq began, through March of 2008 when the war had substantially wound down, some 4,000 American soldiers were killed. That's about 800 per year. I probably needn't have quoted that figure, because the news media tracked the toll since the beginning. It was been one of the central issues in the national debate about the war.
But did you also know that, during those same five years, about 210,000 Americans were killed on our highways — nearly one-sixth of them teenagers? Let me repeat that, so you don't think it's a misprint: 210,000 Americans were killed on the highways during that five-year period.
Those are the dead. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency that tracks these statistics, 17-million more people were injured seriously enough to require medical attention. On an annual basis, that's equivalent to the entire population of Chicago — nearly 10,000 a day! Millions more suffered damages to their vehicles and property totaling over $1 trillion.
Just as in warfare, all of these incidents involved a sudden and violent act, a crashing and crushing of tons of metal, often with terrible consequences for flesh and blood. If you've been driving even a short time, you've seen the results firsthand. Even if you've never been involved in a crash yourself, it's a near certainty you've encountered a bad one, or its aftermath, somewhere along the highways.
Consider that comparison: About 4,000 killed in Iraq versus 210,000 killed at home. That's more than 42,000 people a year, more than 800 a week — 115 a day. That's 115 husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Though the death toll is down from the peak of 51,000 in 1966 — and has dropped a bit more during the past few years — it's still incomparably higher than deaths from, say, commercial air traffic — more than 100 times the average annual toll of airplane crashes, and that would be a bad year for airplane crashes.
As 4,000 military families grieved the loss of their loved ones in Iraq, 210,000 other families likewise suffered tragic and sudden deaths in their midst.
Yet, you never hear political speeches or calls for investigations about the highway toll.
One of my purposes in writing this book was to get you to ask, "Why not?"
What if the circumstances were different? What if those 800-plus people dying on the highways each week were killed instead by bombs — by those "improvised explosive devices," or "IEDs," which have become so well-known because of their use in Iraq and Afghanistan?
If that were happening, do you think for a minute the people of this county would stand by passively and accept it? Of course not! If a bomb killed just one person in our country, the outcry would be fierce. The public would insist that law-enforcement agencies deploy their personnel in large numbers. They would demand investigations. Everyone would want to get to the bottom of the incident and make sure it was not repeated.
What if it were repeated? What if it happened all the time — what if it happened 800 times a week?
Can you imagine the horrified public reaction? People would demand to know why their government could not stop the violence and death. In turn, the government would declare a state of emergency. Governors would deploy National Guard troops, and state police forces would set up roadblocks and checkpoints all over the country, searching vehicles and detaining suspects. No price would be considered too high to stop the carnage.
Bottom line: The public would not tolerate even a few bomb-related deaths a week.
So why is there almost nothing said about 800 violent deaths a week from collisions? Why do more than 3 -million casualties not even raise eyebrows among the driving public? Such tragedies don't require extensive investigations. No mysterious or diabolical forces contributed to them. No complex mechanical or system failures were responsible. The causes of highway crashes are almost always obvious.
Most outrageous, the massive toll of victims is unnecessary. We are wasting precious lives for no good reason. The people on the roads are not dedicated soldiers dying to protect freedoms. They are dying because their fellow citizens, neighbors, friends and family cannot restrain themselves or reform their bad habits. It's that simple.
Why aren't we focusing on this national embarrassment with the energy and attention we devote to terrorism and warfare? Where is the outrage? Where is the high-profile commission? In the decade since I completed the original manuscript for this book, I have not heard a single word about highway safety from national politicians, and not very much from the media.
Here's a trivia question: Who was the last candidate even to utter the words "highway safety" in a presidential campaign?
Give up? It was Richard Nixon — and he was talking about appropriations.
What about those tens of thousands who will perish on our highways this year, or the millions that will require medical attention? Do we continue to ignore their impending fates because the circumstances are routine? Are these victims simply among the cost society must pay for the privilege of getting from here to there? Are we that insensitive?
We must be, because sad to say there is no uproar. The horrors on the highways have become so much a part of our lives we're numb to them. Vehicle tragedies, which tend to happen quietly, a few victims at a time, rarely receive widespread notice. Unless a crash is spectacular, it's usually relegated to the back pages of newspapers and given minimal coverage on TV and radio.
Some time ago, the media devoted considerable news coverage to the dangers of amusement park rides. The reason: About a half-dozen people were killed over several weeks.
A half-dozen, and it generated headlines!
I'm not attempting to minimize the tragic impact of those deaths on the families and friends of the victims — and I certainly am not demeaning the tremendous sacrifices of our military personnel. It's just that the reaction by the public and the media to these circumstances seems out of proportion. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists killed more than 3,000 people in our country. That's about four weeks' worth of casualties on our highways. In four weeks, collisions also injure about 35,000.
It's not that one category of tragedy deserves widespread attention and another does not — it's that the larger category is receiving, effectively, no attention.
Maybe we don't react to the steady rate of highway carnage because we've become so skilled at deluding ourselves about the strength of our own driving skills and the ability of our vehicles to protect us. We seem to act like the main characters in The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's classic profile of military test pilots. Those men thought that anytime one of their comrades died in a plane crash, it was because the man's skills were defective. Their own survival, in contrast, could be attributed to their extraordinary abilities.
There's a difference between most of us and test pilots, however. They were highly trained individuals supported by teams of scientists, mechanics and other professionals. Aeronautical engineers carefully planned each flight, and the pilots executed them with great care.
Not so with vehicular travel. It is chaotic. Few drivers possess more than the most basic training. Most are undisciplined, many are careless, more than a few are impaired, and some are deliberately reckless. As a result, driving is the most hazardous everyday activity in the United States, the number-one killer of everyone under age 65.
Aggressive driving has emerged to become a major component of the danger. The exact numbers are difficult to calculate, but studies by NHTSA estimate that as many as one-third of crashes and two-thirds of fatalities are connected to such behavior. If so, the cost to society could be $65 billion and 23,000 deaths per year.
Interesting, by the way, that several years ago NHTSA stopped classifying highway incidents as "accidents." Such a term suggests events caused purely by chance, with no one at fault. Instead, the agency now uses the term "crashes," because relatively few result from factors other than driver "error."
Which brings us back to the subject of terrorism. In pursuing their horrible activities, terrorists deliberately attempt to inflict the greatest possible harm on the population. But they also attempt to cause panic and fear — to break the will of a nation or nations.
In general, they have been unsuccessful in their secondary goal, but successful in their primary pursuit. The actions on 9/11 caused considerable panic and fear, but their intention of killing tens of thousands failed. Because of astounding bravery by police, fire and rescue personnel — and ordinary citizens — at the World Trade Center in New York, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and above a meadow in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the toll was kept much lower. Many people survived because they escaped or were rescued on that awful morning.
Sad to say, on our highways the situation is reversed. Our driving culture is inflicting maximum harm on itself, while panic among the populace remains almost nonexistent.
Maximum harm? Yes. Each year:
32,000 dead, based on 2010 statistics
$200 billion in damages
That's the havoc wreaked by individuals wielding vehicles weighing 3,000 pounds or more. No question, vehicles are as dangerous and potentially lethal as aircraft flown by suicidal fanatics or people wielding weapons.
The figures don't include the catastrophic effect such incidents have on the victims' families. Or, the lingering anguish of the people who survive vehicle crashes — including those who cause them. Or, the shortened life spans induced by the inherent stresses of driving aggressively, day in and day out. Or, the uncounted millions of pets and wild animals run over by drivers who don't have the time or the inclination to slow down for even a few seconds. Or, the blight of litter that lines our roadsides. Or even the simple esthetic damage done to the peace and quiet of neighborhoods by vehicles driving too fast. Yes, shattered stillness ought to be considered a casualty.
Think I'm exaggerating? Some years back, the City of Fairfax, Virginia, installed one of the first camera systems that can photograph the license plates of vehicles running red lights. It caught more than 2,300 motorists over just the first three-week period the system was used — at one intersection!
Officials supervising the test said they were shocked at the outcome. They shouldn't have been. Soon afterward, a newspaper told of a suburban-Maryland sixth grader who had observed 500 vehicles at a four -way-stop intersection as a class project. He reported that 86 percent of drivers didn't stop — some of them didn't even slow down.
No wonder so many crashes occur at traffic lights. It's even more serious than it sounds. Allan F. Williams, the former Senior Vice President for Research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), in Arlington, Virginia, said running red lights is now the most common cause of crashes in urban areas. About 45 percent of those crashes cause injuries, compared with 30 percent in other crashes.
Such incidents almost never involve road rage. Instead, they are caused by what Williams calls "everyday aggression," something many, many people practice routinely. It involves a constant disregard for traffic laws and reasonable standards of courtesy.
I can't overstate the seriousness of the problem. Almost all drivers speed — at least 90 percent, according to my direct, nearly daily observations for almost two decades. They do it even though speeding — both exceeding posted speed limits and driving too fast for conditions — is one of the three most common causes of crashes. (The biggest is driving while impaired; I'll get to the third one later.) Speeding automatically endangers everyone in or around the offending vehicle. It is a form of aggressive driving. Even more than that, it has become a universal bad habit, a national plague, and we've got to stop it.
I'm not talking only about the expressways; speeding is just as pervasive in neighborhoods. Probably it is even more dangerous there, because speed limits on secondary roads are based on factors such as restricted visibility, sharp turns and frequency of driveways and crosswalks along the pavement. Lower speeds are necessary because motorists are much more likely to encounter other vehicles entering, crossing, or exiting traffic, as well as pedestrians, children, cyclists and animals. In such situations, the ability to stop or slow down quickly is crucial. But just as they do on the interstates, drivers ignore speed-limit and yellow advisory signs on secondary roads almost constantly.
Excerpted from The Driving Challenge by Phil Berardelli. Copyright © 2011 Phil Berardelli. Excerpted by permission of D Street Books.
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