With April's designation as Distracted Driving Awareness Month, it's a good time to think about how to keep drivers focused on the road.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 3,477 people are killed because of distracted driving each year. Most people immediately blame cellphones and other electronic devices. I, on the other hand, think of car controls for stereo and other functions.
But the statistics don't bear out a rising number of cellphone-related crashes and deaths. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) cites federal government estimates that 6 percent of drivers were having phone conversations during any moment of the day — a rate that has declined 28 percent since 2013.
Industry experts do see ways to reduce distraction and improve safety: roadway design, vehicle design, app design and restriction, and individual responsibility.
Roadway design. This intrigued me the most because it's not something many of us would think of.
Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research with IIHS, added it at the end of an interview about the usual subjects — cellphones, stereo controls, and driver behavior.
"The roadway environment can also influence driver behavior," Cicchino said. "When it's harder to navigate, people are going to pay attention to it."
She specifically mentioned roundabouts, instead of traditional intersections. They require more concentration because without stop signs and red lights, drivers have to be alert for other moving traffic and pedestrians. Navigating through the circle requires a lot of movement and yielding.
The good news is that PennDOT plans to boost the installation of roundabouts in the coming years. The move toward roundabouts started in the late 1990s, said Jan Huzvar, deputy communications director at PennDot.
"Roundabouts offer improved safety and reduced delay over other at-grade intersection forms because roundabouts have fewer conflict points, slower speeds, and continuous flow," Huzvar said in an email. "When comparing a roundabout to a signal, studies show that roundabouts provide a 90 percent reduction in fatal crashes, 75 percent reduction in injury crashes, and a 30 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes."
The first roundabout in Pennsylvania opened in 2005 in Unionville, Chester County. Since then, 47 have opened to traffic — 38 of them on state routes. Nine are under construction and not yet open to traffic. About 30 are in either design or planning stages, Huzvar said.
Notable roundabouts in our area are in Swarthmore, Delaware County; Zieglerville, Montgomery County; and a newly opened one near my own home in West Bradford, Chester County.
New Jersey has a longer history with more troublesome traffic circles — which include many lanes and traffic lights — but is coming around to roundabouts as well.
Matthew Saidel, a spokesman for the N.J. Transportation Department, declined in an email to say how many roundabouts New Jersey has or is planning but said that the Garden State uses roundabouts where appropriate.
"Modern roundabouts have a smaller diameter than most traffic circles, resulting in lower speeds," Saidel said. "Vehicles can enter modern roundabouts more easily than traffic circles due to flared approaches, entry angles, slower speeds on the circulating roadway, and the fact that vehicles entering roundabouts always yield to circulating traffic."
Vehicle design. When I think of vehicle design, I focus on driver experience: Are the controls intuitive and well-placed, and will I be taking my eyes off the road frequently just because I don't like a song?
The IIHS's Cicchino points less to these kinds of features than to the newest safety controls, specifically crash-avoidance technology such as automatic emergency braking and lane-departure warning.
"Automatic emergency braking is pretty effective in reducing rear-end crashes," Cicchino said. "It cuts them in half. And distracted driving often results in a rear-end crash."
As for intuitive controls, Cicchino and the IIHS find that intuitive voice-activated systems for making calls are the best at keeping a driver's eyes on the road.
She noted the Chevrolet MyLink system — a bit on the older side these days, but the research lags the latest developments. I'm a fan of Cadillac's CUE, if only for the voice activation system that seems to recognize every command. But I'm so aware of it because the rest of it functions rather poorly, and voice activation becomes my default.
Still, automakers need to consider how their crash-avoidance systems function, as well. Stephanie Braun, director of connected car at Esurance, said that in a recent meeting with about 60 insurance people, many of them confirmed they turned off the lane-departure warning.
"It's just so sensitive for most people," Braun said.
So, a quick shout-out to Mazda here. I just finished a Mazda3 test in a car equipped with lane-keeping and left it on the entire time. It gives a subtle steering-wheel vibration and then nudges the car back into the lane. Automakers, take note.
Phone and app design. There's real potential to effect change here as well — which Braun said should start on the mobile side, rather than with auto manufacturers.
"It's a slow process for new technology to get into vehicles," she said.
Esurance has a mobile app that is expanding across the country; the company is researching how it might give drivers feedback on risky behaviors and incorporate distracted-driving prevention.
Oregon, which in October passed a law banning handheld cellphones while driving, sweetened the pot by offering the DriveHealthy app. Lock your phone when you're behind the wheel and improve your score. Friends and family can compete with one another for the high score. First-time offenders can get out of a fine by taking a distracted-driving awareness course.
Personal responsibility. In the end, distracted — or focused — driving comes down to what each of us does behind the wheel. NHTSA, IIHS, the National Safety Council, and other agencies are pushing hard to make distracted driving as taboo as drinking-and-driving has become.
Remember: A text takes your eyes off the road for about five seconds, the IIHS says. That's more than enough time to make a fatal mistake.