Because driver distractions are a leading cause of motor vehicle crashes, the National Safety Council (NSC) has made April Distracted Driving Awareness Month to bring attention to this epidemic. For a surveying and engineering firm that designs transportation infrastructure, raising awareness of this issue is one more way to help support communities.
Ron Petering’s career as a transportation and traffic engineer has been dedicated to improving the safety and design of roadway networks, so he is focused on raising awareness of the risks of distracted driving to help citizens and his employees arrive at their destinations safely.
“Anything that distracts your attention, even a little bit, while driving makes you a less effective driver and one who is more at risk of being in an accident,” said Petering. “You can only effectively do one thing at a time, so when you are behind the wheel, you should always choose to make that one thing driving safely.”
Studies have shown that phone use can make a driver four times more likely to be involved in a crash, and when texting, the crash risk can be more than 23 times more likely than average. In a recent crash near New Braunfels, Texas, that killed 13 people, texting has been identified as a contributing factor.
“We, as humans, simply don’t do well in multi-tasking situations of any sort,” said Petering. “Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time, but instead handle tasks sequentially, switching between one task and the other. While we might be able to juggle between tasks fairly rapidly, there is still loss in reaction time and information processing.”
Driver distractions are not limited to texting or making phone calls, but also include reaching for something in the vehicle, changing the radio station or adjusting air conditioning controls, as well as paying more attention to the roadside environment than the road itself.
“At 60 mph, a vehicle travels the distance of an entire basketball court in only one second, and when traveling that fast, a small time difference in perceiving a hazard and beginning a corrective action can make all the difference in avoiding a crash,” said Petering.
In the workplace, motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of work-related deaths. Each year, since 1994 between 32,800 and 43,500 people have been killed annually in motor vehicle accidents, which is the equivalent of a 100-passengar plane crashing each day of the year.
“I have twice been the first person to come upon the scene of a fatal accident,” said Petering. “Although both were over 30 years ago, I can remember some details like yesterday. The force involved in an auto crash is massive and the damage that can be done to an occupant can be indescribable.”
To reduce driving distractions and crash risks, the MEC employee policy includes several items addressing cell phone use while driving. These items include such things as not placing a call while driving, allowing non-critical phone calls to go to voicemail, asking a passenger to make or take calls, and pulling off the road when taking critical phone calls. With some studies indicating that hands-free devices can also be a meaningful distraction, MEC is actively monitoring emerging findings to guide future policy decisions on the use of hands-free devices.
“Every day, our survey and engineering work helps people from communities across the Midwest to travel to their desired destination safely. As professionals who understand crash risk factors, sight distances and roadway design, we need to be leaders in our communities when it comes to safe, focused driving,” said Petering.