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Eyes On the Road Again

On a recent gorgeous, if chilly, San Francisco afternoon, I decided to take a scenic ride home. I unfolded the top of my 1990 MX-5, zipped up my ski jacket, and drove a route that skirts Presidio Heights, needlepoints through Sea Cliff, and doglegs down the Great Highway. For those of you not familiar with San Francisco, the Great Highway runs along the ocean, from just north of the Cliff House to the city’s south-westernmost point. A sand berm separates the four-lane road along much of the Great Highway, which, unlike the name suggests, is a city street complete with several stoplights to allow pedestrians beach access. It’s not an enthusiast’s dream-road, but it’s beautiful.

I was cruising along, enjoying the ocean air, driving slightly faster than the posted 35mph speed limit, when I encountered a red light (as one does on city streets). Slowing to a stop, I noticed a silver Mercedes SL (R129) in my rearview mirror approaching the intersection in the lane to my right. Before I could process what was happening, the Benz silver-streaked through the red light at well over 50mph. Maybe the driver didn’t register the light, I thought—until I saw the Mercedes fly through the next red light, then the red lights after that. Without slowing down.

Thankfully, no one got hurt that afternoon. I stopped again a few times—once between lights to make way for a surfer padding barefoot to the beach. This happens all the time on the Great Highway.

How entitled must Mr. Mercedes (or Ms) have felt to ignore those red lights? Entitled enough, I have to assume, to consider such red lights don’t apply to him or her. Entitled enough to conclude that any pedestrians should stay out of the way. Or, perhaps, entitled enough to text away while unwittingly hurtling down a city street on cruise control.

Whatever that driver was thinking, she or he was putting people at enormous risk. Not only jaywalking barefoot surfer dude, but also kids like my son, who attends school a few blocks from the beach. And if the driver was distracted and did not notice the lights, what would have happened if my car or someone else’s had been in the Benz’s lane?

As Paul and Todd addressed on a recent podcast episode, traffic-related deaths are on a sharp rise after a decades-long decline. The Times article they referred to reports that, despite the many safety features brought to market over the past several years, deaths have risen 14 percent over the past two years, the largest such increase in over 50 years.

What’s to blame for these deaths? “Belts, booze, and speed,” according to Jonathan Adkins, the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (as quoted in the Times article). About 90% of drivers and passengers wear a seatbelt, but that still leaves over 27 million people who don’t, according to the NHTSA. An astonishing 48% of passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2015 weren’t wearing a seatbelt. And roughly a third of traffic-related fatalities involve drivers under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. The lessons here? Folks, please insist that everyone in a passenger vehicle wear a seatbelt, and for goodness sake, do not drive or ride a motorcycle impaired.

How about speed? Paul and Todd took issue with the notion that speeding is to blame for this rise in traffic-related deaths, and I agree—to a point. I would gladly buckle up as a passenger with Paul behind the wheel of his Cayman GTS or with Todd at the helm of his sherbet-orange FRS (road trip to San Francisco, guys?). Unquestionably, Paul and Todd know how to drive, and they know how to drive at speed. Safely.

The thing is, though, a lot of drivers don’t drive well or safely at speed. They might dart from lane to lane through traffic like they’re playing a video game, or tailgate motorcyclists at 80mph, or warp across a double yellow line around a blind curve to pass a slower vehicle. They might even barrel down a narrow residential street at 50mph or plow through red lights along the Great Highway.

Speed does play a factor in many accidents involving injury or death. When someone is already making poor driving decisions or losing control of vehicle that weighs thousands of pounds, adding excessive speed to the mix makes for a potentially lethal physics lesson.

The Times article also identifies distracted driving as a contributor to the rising death toll (as my son would say: duh). As a Bay Area resident, I drive through a lot of traffic, and at this point, I am surprised when I notice a driver who is not texting, talking with the phone held to an ear (illegal in CA), yammering away hands-free, looking at some device for several seconds at a time, or otherwise engaged in a distinctly non-driving activity (putting on makeup, shaving, manicuring, reading a newspaper over the steering wheel, playing Pokémon Go… I’ve seen all these and more).

As a commuter, I do understand that stop and go traffic can prove boring and a distraction from the other day-to-day demands that draw our attention. It's tempting to glance at the phone. But growing evidence suggests these distractions are dangerous, some (such as texting) extremely so. If you haven't already, I recommend watching the Mythbusters episode about dangerous driving (Season 15, Episode 10) that illustrates how talking on the phone hands-free while driving is just as risky as talking while holding a phone. After watching that episode, I can only imagine what the driving-simulation results for texting or opening apps would look like.

I also wonder if the promise of technology is actually changing notions of what “driving” requires of the person behind the wheel. Yes, I’m referring to automation, but I’m also thinking of the many breakthroughs in auto safety in general (lane assist, crash protection, automatic stopping, etc.) that have made driving a vehicle technically safer than ever. I also suspect that such advances—and the marketing campaigns that champion them—can leave people with a false sense of security. Take, for example, the VW Passat “On the Road Again” ad starring Willie Nelson—the one during which the Passat’s safety features save families from catastrophic crashes with semis, stopped traffic ahead, and vehicles in blind spots (laughing ensues after every near-miss experience). Now I’m a big Willie Nelson fan, but I’m no fan of this ad, whose basic premise—that the Passat will save us from our own crappy driving—places agency (and responsibility) on the car, not the driver. Don’t worry about looking for traffic behind you; the car will save you from your own careless mistakes.

So what can people do to help reduce traffic deaths, besides not engaging in the risky behavior I just surveyed (not to mention over-relying on whiz-bang safety features)? The Times article mentions enforcement as part of the solution, and I have to agree. I’m not thinking of the traditional (and largely arbitrary) speed-trap enforcement; we have to find better ways to identify and cite the impaired, distracted, and reckless drivers out there. Awareness campaigns (such as the ominous “Better Unread than Dead” billboards) help as well.

As enthusiasts, we, too, can play a role in addressing traffic safety. We can encourage disinterested drivers to learn more about driving dynamics and handling. We can take courses to learn how to drive under control, navigate traffic, and avoid crashes. We can educate ourselves about driving safety and psychology (Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic is a must-read on this topic, in my opinion). And when we’re behind the wheel on the street, we should drive within our limits. Driving can and should be fun—without endangering our lives or the lives of others.

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