We are the first to realize that this page is far too long. It is now in the process of being broken down into much smaller segments which will appear below as links and replace the majority of the visible text. Thank you for your patience.
When Road Safety USA was established as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization in 2019, one of our key goals from the outset was to work to reduce the astonishing number of failures in the official advice that is given to drivers and other road users in the USA.
Are ‘bad advice’ and the resultant poor techniques collectively one of the reasons that America has significantly worse road death rates then the other ~30 developed nations of the world? At this point in time, we don’t know of any empirical research either way on this topic but it does seem very likely.
What types of bad advice are we talking about? Here are some loose categories:
- ‘Advice’ which does not meet empirical research standards or — in the absence of relevant research — global best practices. This can happen because the ‘advisors’ choose to do their own thing or, just as bad, are completely unaware that tried and proven methods already exist.
- Very commonly, it would appear that the people tasked with writing documents such as state drivers manuals or road safety posts on social media have very little if any training in road safety and are basically still churning out the equivalent of ‘what grandad told them’ when they learned to drive.
- The same thing applies to those individuals tasked with choosing or even commissioning images or videos to use alongside safety messages. It is very common indeed to see misleadingly unsafe imagery in these situations, and to put this in perspective, some of the most common examples of this come from Government-level.
- Even though it defies logic, sheer guesswork would appear to be another cause of ‘advice’ that is, at best, garbage and at worst downright dangerous. The problem is that things which seem like a ‘good idea’ or even ‘obvious’ to unqualified people giving driving ‘advice’ are frequently wrong in terms of driving for maximum safety.
Real Life Examples
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
The USDOT has three agencies dealing with road-related issues. See these links:
- NHTSA — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (responsible for vehicles and road users);
- FHWA — The Federal Highway Administration (responsible for the roads);
- FMCSA — The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (responsible for commercial drivers and some aspects regarding commercial vehicles).
Perhaps the most egregious example we have witnessed of unacceptable actions at the National Transportation Safety Board took place way back in 2003.
It is not the fact that the aforementioned incident occurred 17 years ago that it is important, it was the astonishing insistence by the NTSB that, despite an entirely justified and accurate appeal to the contrary, they were going to go ahead and publish a research document containing wildly inaccurate and disproven information from the American Driver & Traffic Safety Education Association (ADTSEA), despite the fact that it would be immensely misleading to anyone who read it.
Indeed, the original document is still available, inter alia, at TRID — the TRIS and ITRD database.
What does this say about the trustworthiness of the NTSB’s published information?
It is also one of the bodies which typically reports on America’s annual road fatality rates as though good progress is being made, and with no reference to international comparisons which show that the number of road deaths in the USA is far higher than it should be, has been so for several decades, and is consistently making a significantly lower rate of improvement than other developed nations.
THE BIG U.S. AUTOMAKERS IN GENERAL
It may seem logical — intuitive even — to presume that the big automotive corporations would know a lot about truly good driving, but the answer to that is: Why would they? They are engineers, not highly and suitably trained top drivers (and nor, for example, are racing drivers whose own style and ethos of driving are dramatically different to the required standards). This surprising state of affairs does keep raising its ugly head in the advice that such companies give and also in the televised commercials they publish.
In addition, did you know that big U.S. automakers sell vehicles in European countries that are significantly safer than those they sell to Americans, back home in the USA? No doubt the reason they would give would be that the vehicle safety laws are stricter in Europe than they are in the USA, which is true, but wouldn’t it be desirable for American families to at least have the option and benefits of the safer technology?
Do automakers have any responsibility for promoting safe driving? We think that the majority of people would agree that they do, yet for countless years there have been television commercials from automakers showing unsafe driving.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY
The fact is that Ford has published items on its website that strongly indicate that they do not have any genuine experts on safe driving — or at the very least least no such experts who control what the corporation does or does not publish online.
An example of this was an automated PowerPoint presentation they posted which recommended turning the exterior mirrors on any car outwards as far as they would turn, so that drivers could have a better view of what other vehicles were alongside them on a multi-lane highway! There are actually ten important reasons why this should not be done.
FORD DRIVING SKILLS FOR LIFE
Another group to whom the same presumption on safety applies is racing drivers but the result is the same. Safe driving is emphatically not about either vehicle handling skills, nor is it about the skills necessary to race at high speeds on a private circuit.
Even more surprisingly, the team at Ford Driving Skills For Life displays a serious lack of safety knowledge on a component of their training curriculum.
The fact is that for many years they have been teaching teens how to get out of skids. A lot of readers might be saying “So what, that’s a good thing,” but oh no it is not — big time.
Research into this very specific topic has been done in many countries over a period approaching half-a-century, and while there are no independent, empirical research results to show that skid training makes drivers any safer, there are many which show that it actually makes matters worse and that drivers who receive skid training not only have more crashes afterwards than drivers who do not get the training, but that those crashes often involve higher speeds, too, thus making them even more dangerous. It is believed that the reason for the higher speeds is that such training primarily makes drivers over-confident that if something goes wrong, they will be able to rectify it. But that dangerously inaccurate belief is the worst possible outcome of any safety training.
The best and most shocking example of it being a dangerous thing to teach is that Scandinavian countries actually made skid training a compulsory component of their driving tests, but the resultant leap in the number of fatal crashes after such training meant that it was very swiftly removed again from the driving tests. Try arguing with that fact!
One recent research paper which examines several studies on this topic may be found here.
On a separate subject, Ford Driving Skills For Life has recently been doing a series of video webinars. We have by no means had time to watch them all, unfortunately, but the one about driving around roundabouts displayed a serious lack of any accurate knowledge and could only have served to make public understanding worse, not better.
The simple and sad fact is that over a period of several years, including several times in the past few months, Ford Driving Skills For Life has entirely failed to respond to any of our communications about the massively-proven dangers of teaching young people how to get out of a skid, which amounts to ignoring a deadly issue when they claim to be making young drivers safer!
At our various organizations, we have had issues with the GHSA over many years, just one of which was the fact that one of their recent governor’s representatives — for New Hampshire — used to claim that seatbelts had never been shown to help save lives. Admittedly, this was and is a New Hampshire State issue but the fact that the man in question was allowed to promote such nonsense through the GHSA raises severe questions.
A more recent issue, but one that has dragged on for years, is the fact that the GHSA actively supports the Ford Driving Skills For Life program despite the fact that FDSFL (see above) includes skid-recovery training, which very dangerously contravenes almost half a century of research from top safety institutions around the world.
The simple fact is that the GHSA receives a lot of money from Ford DSFL for their own programs and the GHSA is not prepared to jeopardize that money by arguing against the skid training.
But that leaves a very simple question: Since when has it been acceptable to put countless young lives at risk for the sake of not losing income?
Some would say that is a scurrilous situation.
CR carried an article heartily supporting the Ford DSFL program, despite the overwhelming research evidence showing how risky it is to teach skid recovery.
Not only did CR apparently not do its own research on the topic, despite its self-proclaimed role in that respect, but like so many other bodies they failed to answer any of our correspondence on the issue… an all-too-common badge of sheer unprofessionalism that we have met all around the US road safety community.
CELL PHONE CORPORATIONS
Some years ago, we attended a conference hosted by the then Secretary of Transportation. Among the main speakers was a panel consisting of people from the major cellphone corporations and it quickly became evident that even though using a phone to have a conversation while driving increases the risk of a serious-injury or fatal crash by a factor of four, their collective effort was being put into getting all of the focus onto stopping texting-while-driving, but NOT conversations.
Texting while driving IS more dangerous than talking on a phone, but the latter is still just as deadly as having a blood-alcohol concentration at the legal limit of of 0.08 percent. From the cellphone companies’ point of view this has undoubtedly been a very successful ploy, keeping the serious dangers of talking on a phone when driving very low-key while encouraging a single, disproportionate focus on what is to them the much less profitable area of texting behind the wheel.
A cynic might say that this is an excellent example of major corporations, with their financial support for senators, etc., being able to influence government decisions that could/would affect those corporations’ profit margins.
INDIVIDUAL STATES & STATE DRIVERS MANUALS
While the quality varies from state to state, it is very much still the case that there are still no drivers manuals in the USA that cover either the quantity or the quality of what new drivers really do need to know.
In 2007, the writer of this Web page, wrote a research paper which was fully PhD/peer-reviewed and was published by the Society of Automotive Engineers [SAE], at their World Congress in Detroit. The title of the paper — State Drivers Manuals Can Kill Your Kids! — was deliberately pugnacious because not one of the various states had even replied to our polite letters, e-mails or telephone calls in which we asked to discuss various safety points, and this was a topic which critically did need attention.
The paper subsequently won an award for being voted one of the top five percent among more than 700 papers that were published.
(Also see the comments in the FHWA section, above, regarding the MUTCD.)
The thing that Resposibility.org fails to mention, and which has been applied in more than 100 countries around the world, is a 28-year-old recommendation by the World Medical Association [WMA] that the Blood-Alcohol Concentration for drivers should be no higher than 0.05% in any country.
On their own page, ‘Prevention of Drunk Driving’, Responsibility.org identify one of their ‘ways to identify drunk drivers’ as being “a .08 BAC legal limit.”
Ignoring the massively important and long-term recommendation of the world’s top doctors puts the credibility of Responsibility.org under a huge question mark.
Sadly, a lot of medical doctors, law enforcement people, and ‘traffic safety experts,’ including a former chair of the GHSA (see above), are listed as being on Responsibility’s various boards. We can only assume that these people are either blissfully unaware of the WMA’s 1992 and 2007 recommendations — which seems unlikely — or are choosing to ignore them. Or could it be something to do with money?
The first thing to put into perspective is that when we asked ADTSEA instructors how long their own training took to fulfil this task the answer was two days!
To say this is extraordinary and grossly inadequate is a colossal understatement. In many if not all of the other ~30 developed nations of the world, becoming a driving instructor rightfully takes many months, not two days!
Is this genuinely how much value we put on American lives — in particular the lives of teenagers, the most vulnerable drivers on US roads?
Elsewhere on this webpage we refer to an NTSB conference on the subject of young drivers. What the two top students (i.e. one boy and one girl) for the whole of the USA had to say about the quality of their training was mind-boggling. They — as stated, the top two ADTSEA students for the year — were intensely critical of the unprofessionalism of their instructors, one of whom even had a sleep while the kids were driving!
THE PUSH TOWARDS SEMI-AUTONOMOUS AND FULLY-AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES
Despite so much hope and optimism being focused on future autonomous vehicles, including by government departments, the fact is that it will likely be a very long time before this new technology is optimal and is saving all of the lives that current promises would have us believe.
Frankly, one of the biggest hurdles is created by the previously-mentioned problem that the USA does not perform well in traffic safety and despite all the euphemisms and boasting, has not performed well for at least the last few decades, if not longer.
So here is the question: What will be the likely outcome if we simply automate a poorly functioning system?
In the intervening years, it is critical that the USA improves its road safety standards right across the board if the autonomous version is going to have any decent chance of success.
Two of the biggest challenges that have been revealed so far are:
- Driver over-estimation, where drivers believe the semi-autonomy of current vehicles will actually drive their car for them, when nothing could be further from the truth. Several people have already died as a result of such misplaced over-optimism.
- Hacking of vehicles appears likely to become a significant and potentially dangerous issue, over and above the likelihood of hardware and software failures or conflicts.
Insurance companies know all about the risks, right?
That is one supposition, but if one reads the so-called ‘advice’ that many insurance companies provide about what they believe to be safe driving, the illusion of appropriate knowledge disappears very swiftly.
For example, on September 1, 2020, Dairyland Insurance added the following on their website:
“Keep safe distances between yourself and other drivers
“…When you’re riding behind a car, leave plenty of room in front of your motorcycle—a good rule of thumb is to leave the length of two cars. The extra space gives you more time to react if the car in front of you stops abruptly.”
To say that ‘two car lengths’ is inadequate is a major understatement. At 55mph — the typical, non-highway maximum speed — a vehicle is travelling at 80 feet per second [fps]. Now take into account that research has proved that the average driver/rider takes from 1.3 to 1.5 seconds to react to something bad that happens up ahead. At 80fps, this equates to a reaction distance of 104 to 120 feet travelled before a driver even goes for the brakes.
Even allowing that the imagined ‘car lengths’ are those of a big car — let’s say a minivan at 17 feet long — a bike or car just 34 feet behind another vehicle that’s travelling at 80fps is lethally close. If the driver ahead braked hard, the driver/rider behind would have no chance of braking in time and would either collide or have to swerve to avoid the lead vehicle. And if they swerve, all sorts of deadly scenarios can occur immediately, with no chance of avoidance.
Even at 30mph (44fps), two car lengths is a very inadequate following distance for anyone to be safe. Read how to create what is an infallibly safe following distance for any speed. on dry roads, here.
What does this mean? It means that people who frankly haven’t a clue about safe driving are sitting in offices writing deadly ‘advice’ on a subject that kills, on average, over 100 Americans and injures thousands more, every single day, every year.
It is a completely unacceptable situation.
To be fair to the CDC, the only thing we would challenge them on is that they, too, sometimes talk about road deaths in the USA in isolation, as though things are improving well, without mentioning the extremely important fact that the country performs very poorly in comparison to virtually all other developed nations. Why do that? Why not tell the American people what they deserve to know — that they are actually entitled to expect far better results and dramatically fewer road deaths and injuries each year?
Some people who have previously heard this information about poor American driving and highway safety standards have accused the ‘messenger’ of being unpatriotic and even anti-American, but nothing could be further from the truth. The people of this great nation have every right to the same levels of safety and the much lower rates of road deaths and serious injuries as other people in the developed world. Sadly, however, while the USA leads the world in many important things, road safety emphatically is not one of them.
Why does this situation even exist? There are probably many reasons, but apart from the implications of the four numbered categories of problems, at the top of this article, one more comes readily to mind, and that is the fact that the fifty states and D.C. effectively have the right to reinvent the rules and methods at will. Clearly, all of the frequently unsubstantiated guesswork cannot all be right!
The writer of this piece is Eddie Wren, the Executive Director of Road Safety USA, who has 47 years of international experience across various specialist aspects of traffic safety and driver training. His comprehensive résumé is available here.