Monday, July 15, 2019

Young Drivers and Car Accidents

Driving is one of the riskiest activities we as Americans do. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), over 37,000 people in the U.S. die in road crashes each year, including over 1,600 children under age 15. An additional 2.35 million are injured or disabled. These statistics are sobering. Many of these crashes are young and inexperienced drivers. In the recent past, some have suggested raising the driving age or placing large amounts of restrictions on young drivers. However, the data do not support these ideas. Training, social changes, legislation against distracted driving, and safety measures for all drivers will do a much better job of addressing the root causes of vehicle crashes.

It is easy to pass off car crash numbers as teens being irresponsible and texting while driving. Distracted driving was responsible for 3,166 deaths in 2017, including 297 caused by drivers between the ages of 15 to 19, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA). But according to the stats above, 2,869 of those deaths (or roughly 90%) were caused by “adult” drivers, over the age of 19. The truth is, all of us are susceptible to the distractions of technology and busy lives. Something as simple as changing the radio station takes our focus off the road and can have deadly consequences for us and for the people we share the roads with. How many times do you find yourself searching in the backseat for that dropped toy, Kleenex box, or wayward cell phone? How many times have you saved time on the way to practice by scarfing down dinner in the car as you drive there? How many times have you taken a phone call in the car, even on a hands free device, and realized to your horror upon pulling into the driveway that you can’t even remember the trip home? Adults are just as susceptible to distraction as teens, if not more.

In fact, seniors are more dangerous on the roads than teens. According to the CDC, in 2016, 2,433 16-19 year olds were killed in the US and 292,742 were treated in emergency departments for injuries. This equates to six teen deaths per day due to car crashes. In contrast, about 7,400 adults aged 65+ were killed and more than 290,000 were treated in emergency departments. That means 20 elderly adults killed per day. That’s a pretty big difference, but we place no restrictions on elderly adults like we do for teens.

Many states have suggested raising the driving age or placing major limitations on young drivers to lower crash statistics. However, younger teen drivers are less distracted than older teen drivers. According to this article, older teens are 70% more likely to exhibit risky behaviors than younger teens. Raising the driving age to 18 or even 21 will not change our behavior as a society. Research done by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that certain safe driving practices help to reduce the number of accidents caused by human error. Their recommendations include reducing speed, reducing the number of drivers under the influence of drugs and alcohol, wearing seatbelts, using appropriate child restraints and other safety equipment, and as mentioned, reducing distracted drivers.

Seatbelt legistlation was hotly contested when it was new. However it has been proven to reduce fatalities in car crashes with great efficacy. Cell phone legislation is also unpopular, but it is needed to prevent distractions while driving. Some states have adopted laws banning some cell phone use, often texting, while the vehicle is moving, but while the vehicle is stopped in traffic or at a light, use is permitted. Other states permit phone calls, but not texting while driving. According to the Governors’ Highway Safety Association (GHSA), no state bans all cell phone use for all drivers. Some ban all use for novice drivers, but expanding restrictions will keep all drivers safer. Simply saying that age is the cause of distracted driving is short sighted.

We also need to make changes by changing our culture. The NHTSA has a list of recommendations to help combat distracted driving in teens. They suggest that new drivers can help hold each other accountable by monitoring their friends’ driving habits and discouraging each other from using technology while driving. Parents need to model good behavior and avoid technology use themselves. They recommend that schools be a part of the solution by educating students about the dangers of distracted driving. Shifting the cultural focus to the root causes of distracted driving will go farther than simply restricting licensing of younger drivers.

Not all distractions come from outside, either. Car manufacturers need to create less distracting instrument panels. The increased use of display screens is extremely distracting while driving. Traditional analog instruments are necessary, but are not flashing or glowing to the degree that screens do. Removing built in distractions could have a profound effect on driver safety. Keeping built in distractions to a minimum will return driver focus where it belongs - outside the vehicle

A major cause of traffic deaths is drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Even prescription medications can cause deadly consequences when mixed with driving. Driving while tired is another risk factor for drivers of any age. Almost as dangerous as driving while under the influence, driving while tired slows reaction times, makes critical thinking fuzzy, and reduces the drivers ability to make good decisions. Quickly reacting to the world around you is crucial while driving, and when your reaction time is impaired because of being overtired, you are unnecessarily putting other drivers at risk. Teaching all drivers to pull over when tired, to rotate drivers when on road trips, and to avoid driving late at night will help reduce the number of crashes due to drowsy drivers.

To keep young drivers safe, we also should reintroduce drivers’ education into the school system. In my home state of California, independent schools are responsible for training young drivers. Many families choose the least expensive schools, which inevitably are not the most comprehensive when it comes to teaching. The minimum number of hours of behind the wheel training are set, but how those hours are spent varies widely, and many of the more expensive schools recognize that the minimum number of hours is inadequate to teach everything drivers should know. Not all states even require drivers’ education before young drivers can be licensed. By returning or introducing drivers’ education training to schools, it will equalize access to training as parents from low income areas will not have to skip driver training due to budgetary concerns. It will also regulate the curriculum so student drivers are taught exactly what they need to know to be responsible drivers and it will be consistent across all students so those with a higher income do not get better training. It also will ensure quality. When there is oversight by an education board, the curriculum with undergo much closer scrutiny than what is currently being put out by for profit companies that have to balance profit margins with quality of education.

A solid foundation to build on for new drivers will go a long way toward lifelong safe driving habits. Postponing the driving age will only kick the can down the road as novice drivers will still be novice drivers at any age. Making changes to our society, like adding safe practices to our roads, changing our culture when it comes to technology use, and adequately training and preparing new drivers will go a lot farther than simply raising the driving age or putting restrictions on licensing.

Wrongly Accused

This is a fictional story I wrote as an application essay for Keller Law offices. Please enjoy.
I grew up in Long Beach with my mom and my little brother, Mike. We lived close to the beach, and I went down there all hours of the day and night to hang out with my friends. Most days, we went to school, came home, grabbed some food, and headed down to the sand to check out girls and mess around. Some days we would skateboard a little, but we were never very good at it. I didn’t like getting my face bashed into a curb or a pole because I missed a trick. We had some good times down there.

My parents were divorced and we lived with my mom. She worked nights as a bartender. She was always working hard for my little brother and me, picking up shifts and working late to make sure we had clothes and shoes and school supplies. She was a great mom - fun loving and sweet and she took great care of us. We were old enough to mind ourselves, so she didn’t worry about us while she was at work. And we were both good kids and stayed out of trouble for the most part. Every once in a while we would get into a fight after school or something and she would get called to a conference with the principal. She was a formidable woman when angry and being in the principal’s office sitting next to our angry mother was more punishment than anything the principal could hand down. So we rarely got into trouble.

Summers we would stay up all night and hang out on the sand. We had to avoid the cops because the beaches closed at 10, and we were never home by then. They usually didn’t hassle us too much but they gave us pretty firm warnings to clear out. We did, but then came back as soon as the cruiser was out of sight down the beach. They would make a single pass at closing, but rarely if ever came back and checked to make sure people were really gone.

As I got older, high school became less and less interesting to me. The beach called to me. It was the place where I was most happy and at peace. Home was okay, but there was responsibility at home - chores and schoolwork and taking care of my brother while our mom worked. So I hung out with the guys more and more. They weren’t all from the same neighborhood anymore, and some of them had really tough home lives. A couple of the guys were being raised by aunts or grandparents because their parents were in lockup. Some of them wished their dads were in lockup because they were drunks or junkies who beat them up. But at the beach, none of that mattered to any of us. We all just hung out and talked about sports or girls or what fights happened at school. Some guys managed to smuggle a beer or two out of the house, and some of the guys would take markers and tag the already graffiti strewn walls, but all in all we were a pretty chill group.

Then things started to change. The cops started checking up on us more and more. Apparently the gangs had spread out their territory and were starting to deal in the local parks and down the beach. What used to be a stern warning with a wink and a nod chasing us off the beach at night became shouting matches between some of the guys and the cops. The quieter members of the group started serving as intermediaries between the louder guys with tough home lives and the police, hoping to avoid any major confrontations. It was pretty much just shouting matches, but things were definitely escalating.

One night, we were out around midnight, and one of the cops saw a kid with a beer. He started asking around for ID because we were all underage. The guy with the beer started yelling at the cop to leave the rest of our group alone. He was the only one with alcohol on him and the cop was hassling us all. The guy got up in his face and the cop shoved him back, hard. He tripped and fell so two other guys jumped at the cop. He pepper sprayed them in the face and called for backup. The rest of us went running, coughing and choking on the pepper spray in the air. We could barely see through the tears streaming out of our eyes and it was dark down on the beach. Soon more cruisers showed up on the beach and the cops came and cuffed us all. We got stuck in the back of one of the big SUVs and hauled down to the station.

When we got there, we were processed, fingerprinted, the works. Someone must have called my mom, because she showed up before we had even finished. I could hear her in her angry voice, yelling at someone at the front desk to tell her what the hell had happened. I cringed. She knew where I hung out at night, but she didn’t know about the occasional drinking. At that point, I was most worried about getting busted by my mom for hanging out with people who were drinking. Little did I know, that was the least of my worries, and the shouting I heard was my mother coming to my defense.

It was early morning when they finally finished processing us all and I was released to my mom. The sun was coming up when we were walking down the sidewalk to the parking lot. I cleared my throat and told her I was sorry for hanging out with guys who were drinking. She looked at me and tears welled up in her eyes. She told me that the police had told her they were busting us for selling drugs. I froze. My brain couldn’t come up with words to answer her. My feet stopped working. My whole body just locked down. Had one of the guys actually had something on them? It certainly wasn’t me. What was going to happen to me now?

I don’t remember very much of those couple of weeks after. I know it was a lot of phone calls, talking to the police, talking to lawyers, and my mom missed a lot of work. I talked to the other guys. They all said none of them had anything on them when we were picked up. I believed them. We just didn’t run in that crowd. I think the cops had to have a reason to haul us all in and just assumed we were gang members. When it turned out we weren’t, they were stuck. Some of the guys said it happens all the time, but I had honestly never heard of it.

I didn’t go to class much during that time. Even when I did, I just sat there. I was a robot - just going through the motions of what a human would do without really understanding the point of any of it. My grades went to hell. My mom ended up losing her job. Her boss said something about coming back when things settled down, but we all knew that wouldn’t happen. She was spending all her time trying to figure out what was going to happen to me. Possession for a first offense would probably just mean a fine, but it could be up to a year in prison and the fines went up to $1,000. It may as well have been a million for my family. My grandmother came down from Seattle to stay with us for a while so mom could look for a new job. I think she probably moved in to help with the bills, too.

After what seemed like a lifetime, our court date arrived. The judge took one look at the case and promptly threw it out. I was stunned.

It was like everything we had been through was for nothing. I was relieved, but at the same time, bitter. We had been through weeks of torture. It cost my mother’s job, my junior year of high school, hundreds of dollars in lawyers fees, sleepless nights, and endless worry. Even though I hadn’t lost my freedom, we as a family had lost a lot. And we could never get it back.

I Wish That I Knew What I know Now When I Was Younger...

Driving is one of the riskiest activities we as Americans do. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), over 37,000 people in the U.S. die in road crashes each year, including over 1,600 children under age 15. An additional 2.35 million are injured or disabled. These statistics are sobering. Many of these crashes are young and inexperienced drivers. Injuries and fatalities from crashes involving young drivers are truly heartbreaking. I lost two high school friends who were dating to a car crash along with her brother and another person. They were going far too fast for conditions and lost control on an interchange ramp. In my youth, I did not see driving as the potentially dangerous undertaking it is. While I always tried to be safe, the more experienced driver in me now could teach the newbie me a thing or two.
  1. Speeding is unnecessary. The younger me always was late to everything. I was notorious for trying to do “one last thing” before hitting the road to work or school or wherever I was headed. As a result, I tended to speed too much. In Southern California where I learned to drive, this was a very commonplace occurrence and I thought nothing of it. Excessive speed is a contributing factor in 31% of all fatal crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Simply reducing your speed goes a long way to preventing crashes by increasing your time to react to obstacles in your path. Not only is speeding unsafe, but it also does very little to decrease your commute time. The average American commute is about 16 miles. If the speed limit along your commute is 45 miles per hour and you exceed that by 10 miles per hour, you will only save about three and a half minutes! The faster the speed limit, the less time you will save, so if you have a freeway commute, speeding is even less worth it. This math assumes a constant speed, which isn’t going to happen in the real world. If you stop at a red light or hit any traffic, the time saved disappears. So driving safely will get you there in just about the same time, but will make sure you arrive in one piece!
  2. Try to look up directions before you leave. The younger me was not always the most prepared. I learned to drive before GPS was popular. I relied on printed out maps to get where I was going. Even as GPS became more widely used, I rarely looked over directions before I headed on my way. I do not like driving in unfamiliar places, and I get lost easily. I had a job were I was driving all over the state to stock grocery stores, and I never seemed to be able to find where I was going. Now I know that looking over the entire trip before you leave helps a lot to feel safe driving in unfamiliar places. Not only does it let me keep my eyes on the road and off my maps or apps, it gives me a general idea of where I am headed and what to look out for, like one way streets or quick turns.
  3. Driving in heavy traffic is its own special headache. Southern California traffic is no joke. You can take a 15 minute drive and stretch it out over an hour or more in a snap. The best thing to do is avoid driving busy roads during rush hour. It sounds like a silly fix to the problem, but finding things to do with your time near work, like running errands, going to the gym, eating an early dinner, or finding somewhere to study and do homework can use up the hour you’d be sitting in traffic anyway and do something useful with it. Then, when you get back on the road, it will be clearer and safer to get where you are going. If sticking around is simply not in the cards or you find yourself in traffic despite your best efforts, remember to leave extra following distance. Following too closely leads to the stop and go traffic we all hate. Laying back a bit and not speeding up so rapidly saves gas and will help smooth the ride out for the people behind you. As the car ahead of you starts and stops, you will end up averaging them out to a constant speed instead of hitting the breaks and the gas over and over. Another pro tip is don’t change lanes unless you need to get on or off the road. This is another cause of the stop and go circus that is rush hour. When someone changes lanes, it makes the person behind them brake, causing a ripple effect on all the cars following. And changing lanes, like speeding, doesn’[t actually save you time on your commute. So stick with the one you’re with.
  4. Don’t drive tipsy. I would never drive drunk. However, I have been known to get behind the wheel after having an adult beverage while out with friends. Even though driving when you have had a small amount of alcohol isn’t illegal, it still impairs your driving. According to the CDC, all levels of Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) have a higher risk of resulting in a crash for teens than for older drivers. So even if you only had one drink, it will increase your risk of being involved in an accident, and younger, less experienced drivers are at a greater risk. Driving is a serious job, and you wouldn’t go into work after drinking. So don’t get in the car, either. It simply isn’t worth the risk. Find a safer way to get home by having a Designated Driver, calling a friend or family member to pick you up, using public transport, or waiting until your body has had time to process the alcohol.
  5. Stay focused on the road. As cell phones became more popular in my youth, they became more and more of a problem for distracted driving. In Illinois, from 2009 to 2013, more than 6,000 crashes involved cell phone usage. That was before cell phones and driving were against the law, but good common sense tells us that staying focused on the road is always the best practice. That includes not only cell phones, but eating while driving, putting on makeup, changing the radio station or putting on the air conditioner (a must in summer in California), and fumbling around the car for lost of dropped items. Keeping your eyes on the road is essential to reacting in time when the unexpected happens.
  6. Driving for conditions. When I left sunny Southern California, I went to Wisconsin. Wisconsin, with 9 months of winter a year. Wisconsin with snow, something I had never driven in before. Not only snow, but crazy downpouring rain and thunderstorms. I had never experienced any of that before, and learning to manage it was quite a challenge. More experienced me would tell younger me to SLOW DOWN! I definitely had a healthy respect for the weather, but I was unprepared for the scope of it. I ended up in the ditch once, and more than once I ended up caught in a terrible storm with visibility next to nil. Staying inside and off the roads when possible is always advisable, and in bad storms, waiting until visibility is better can make a big difference. I still hate driving in bad weather, but I know that if the rain is coming down faster than my wiper blades can swish, I can pull over until it clears up a bit. Usually it doesn’t take very long and it is much better than ending up in a crash!
Experience teaches us a lot of things in life, and I have learned how to be a much safer driver over the years. Probably the biggest theme is don’t be in a hurry, and you will get there safely. I always took driving seriously, but now I know that it is okay to take the few extra minutes to prepare, slow down, and be safe.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Distracted Driving

I have a family.  My husband and I have two kids, aged 7 and 15 months.  We love them and spend a lot of our time nurturing them - feeding them healthy foods, teaching and talking to them, and taking the older one to sports and music practices.  They rely on us to not only keep them safe and healthy now, but also to teach them good habits so when they are adults, they will continue to lead healthy lifestyles. However, we are completely missing one major lesson: safe driving practices.  

Driving is one of the riskiest activities we as Americans do.  According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), over 37,000 people in the U.S. die in road crashes each year including over 1,600 children under age 15, and an additional 2.35 million are injured or disabled.  Distracted driving alone was responsible for 3,166 deaths in 2017, including 297 caused by drivers between the ages of 15 to 19, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA).  These statistics are sobering.  However, there is a lot we can do to combat these tragedies. Vehicle crashes are also one of the most preventable causes of death.

It is easy to pass off these numbers as teens texting while driving.  But according to the stats above, 2,869 of those deaths (or roughly 90%) were caused by “adult” drivers, over the age of 19.  You could argue that many of these are caused by twenty-somethings, and you’d be right, but the truth is, all of us are susceptible to the distractions of technology and busy lives.  Something as simple as changing the radio station takes our focus off the road and can have deadly consequences for us and for the people we share the roads with. How many times do you find yourself searching in the backseat for that dropped toy, Kleenex box, or wayward cell phone?  How many times have you saved time on the way to practice by scarfing down dinner in the car as you drive there? How many times have you taken a phone call in the car, even on a hands free device, and realized to your horror upon pulling into the driveway that you can’t even remember the trip home?

So, I’ll admit, I am speaking from my own experience here.  These are things I do on a REGULAR BASIS. My kids drive with me nearly everywhere in the summer months while school is out, and I never equated my distracted driving habits with putting them in danger, much less teaching them how to grow up and be distracted drivers themselves, but that is the reality of it.

The worst part is, I am not the only culprit here.  After reading this article on about how workers feel pressured to take calls on their commute, I realized that my husband is most distracted on his trips to and from work.  He often uses his drive time into the office to be on conference calls. Now, this is just my opinion, but taking social calls is one thing - you can get off the phone if traffic gets nasty or the weather is bad.  But being on a conference call has higher stakes. It takes way more of your concentration and getting off the phone is not such a simple choice. Do you really “walk out” of a meeting because driving conditions are dicey?  For me at least, the barrier to switching all of my focus back to driving (where it really should have been the whole time ANYWAY) is a lot larger if it is for something with high stakes like a work meeting.  

Full disclosure here, I am writing this post as part of a scholarship entry.  The requirements are that I take a look at my family’s distracted driving and make a comprehensive plan to improve.  All I can say is that it truly opened my eyes to the dangers of distracted driving. I frequently take driving for granted and put my brain on autopilot.  But the truth is, we are hurtling through space at speeds up to 70MPH in little plastic boxes capable of doing a lot of damage.  

So here we are.  There is a saying, “when you know better, you do better.”  So now, it falls on me to figure out what steps we will take to improve our driving and teach our children how to be responsible drivers.
  1. Stop looking up directions while I am on the road.  It is technically legal for me to use my phone while I am stopped at a traffic light or stop sign in the state of Wisconsin, but just because I can doesn’t mean I should.  I frequently am trying to hurriedly finish typing in the address of where I am going as I pull away from a stop. Even if I am stopped, do I really want my focus away from the road in front of me?  If nothing else, I don’t want to be one of “those people” that stupidly stay stopped at a green light.
  2. Eat before I leave or after I get there. This is one that has a twofold benefit.  I used to insist on family dinners, around the dinner table, where everyone sat and talked and reconnected after a long day.  Unfortunately, due to after school activities, that quickly gave way to scrambling to feed everyone on the way from a busy day to a busier night.  I find that when I eat in the car, it is rarely anything worth eating. Often we fall back on fast food or snacks to get us by, instead of eating a well balanced meal.  We also miss out on family time around the table. If I stop eating behind the wheel, it will force me to make time to eat with the family, slow down, and reconnect with each other.
  3. Don’t get distracted by the kids. As much as I love my children, they can be really trying when driving.  Between crying and shouting, needing entertainment, dropping things as a matter of routine, and the constant barrage of chatter and questions, they are a whole different sphere of distraction.  I have often tried to enforce the rule of “it can wait until we get there,” but that is easier said than done, especially with a baby. But if I want my kids to stay safe and learn good habits for when they begin driving, I need to stick to my guns.
  4. Stop taking phone calls in the car.  We both have hands free phone systems in our cars, so we aren’t breaking any laws when we take calls, but it is obviously a distraction.  As I mentioned before, I have gotten home while talking on the phone and scarcely remember the trip. Clearly, my focus is not on my driving, and that is an issue.  This is the biggest issue my husband has. Overall, he is a really good driver, and doesn’t succumb to a lot of the distractions I do. But taking work calls in the car to save time is a big distraction for him. Reaction time is one of the most important factors in preventing car accidents, and if our attention is elsewhere, we will not respond in time.  He has committed to not taking work calls in the car any longer in an effort to do his part to keep us all safe.

We know that it will be hard to make these sweeping changes to our lives, and I don’t expect to be totally successful overnight.  Over the long term, I think we can make good habits a part of our lives, just like brushing and flossing or eating our vegetables.  My plan is to start small on things like not eating in the car and finding maps before I leave, and gradually adding all of my goals.  Since we spend so much time in the car, staying safe there is critical to our way of life. Even if we go slow, the progress is worth the effort!