Saturday, June 13, 2009

Massachusetts Drivers

There was an old saw when I was growing up in NY to watch out for Massachusetts drivers because they were reputedly bad.  (Interestingly when I moved to California, the stereotype here was to watch out for Asian drivers--thereby showing that rather than blame the residents of one state, people here could find fault with an entire race. Needless to say I was offended.)  One of my friends the other day repeated this stereotype about Massachusetts drivers which got me to thinking. 

I read an article last week in an LA Times blog that revealed from a GMAC survey (for whatever that is worth these days) Californians were 48th out of 51 (50 states + DC) in scoring on the GMAC written traffic safety test which draws from various state DMV written tests.  Massachusetts was NOT worst. New York was. And on the NHTSA survey of traffic safety performance based on various measures of traffic fatalities, Massachusetts was the best.

I got a moving violation recently making an illegal left turn on PCH and decided to do online traffic school to get the point off my record.  I signed up for TrafficSchoolForLess and got what was advertised.  The presentation was exceptionally boring unlike the traffic school I did online about 4 years ago where I learned some new things because that course focussed on the practical dangers of speed rather than the boring details of the vehicle code.  My favorite part from the earlier online course was the calculation that you save only a minute on a certain length trip if you go 70 mph instead of 55 but you increase exponentially your injuries if you crash at 70 mph rather than 55 mph.  But I digress.

The recent online course advocated two things for safety which I know from my recent reading of Traffic are not necessarily good for safety.  The first was to lower your stress while driving by listening to something like a book on tape.  To me this is no different from the silly law that many states have passed prohibiting you from talking on the telephone unless you do it handsfree.  I find that dealing with the handsfree  situation is more distracting but in any event it is clear that any cell phone use and by extension listening to books on tape may be distracting.  The NHTSA says in its FAQs:

Q.  Does cell phone use while driving cause traffic crashes?

A.  Research shows that driving while using a cell phone can pose a serious cognitive distraction and degrade driver performance.  The data are insufficient to quantify crashes caused by cell phone use specifically, but NHTSA estimates that driver distraction from all sources contributes to 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes.

Q.  Is it safe to use hands-free (headset, speakerphone, or other device) cell phones while driving?

A.   The available research indicates that whether it is a hands-free or hand-held cell phone, the cognitive distraction is significant enough to degrade a driver’s performance.  This can cause a driver to miss key visual and audio cues needed to avoid a crash.

The other thing that the online course arguably got wrong  is the need to check over your shoulder when changing lanes.  I learned in Traffic that such behavior can be very dangerous because it takes your eyes off the road. Unfortunately I do not have the underlying study cited in Traffic so I cannot opine on its validity but it made sense when I read it. In any event the online course I took is a sanctioned course of the CA DMV and if it says I should do certain things who am I to disagree.  I fully intend to keep listening to books on tape in the car since the course said I could and should. While talking on my handsfree cell phone.

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