Mar 17, 2012
Using this tool, I looked up the risks of death for my demographic group. As a 15-24 year old male in the United States, the most likely cause of my death is a traffic accident; and so I’m taking steps to avoid that. Below I have included the results of my research as well as the actions I will take to implement my findings. Perhaps my research can help you as well.1
Before diving into the results, I will note that this data took me one hour to collect. It’s definitely not comprehensive, and I know that working together, we can do much better. So if you have other resources or data-backed recommendations on how to avoid dying in a traffic accident, leave a comment below and I’ll update this post.
Changing your behavior can reduce your risk of death in a car crash. A 1985 report on British and American crash data discovered that “driver error, intoxication and other human factors contribute wholly or partly to about 93% of crashes.” Other drivers’ behavior matters too, of course, but you might as well optimize your own.2
Secondly, overconfidence appears to be a large factor in peoples’ thinking about traffic safety. A speaker for the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) stated that “Ninety-five percent of crashes are caused by human error… but 75% of drivers say they're more careful than most other drivers. Less extreme evidence for overconfidence about driving is presented here.
One possible cause for this was suggested by the Transport Research Laboratory, which explains that “...the feeling of being confident in more and more challenging situations is experienced as evidence of driving ability, and that 'proven' ability reinforces the feelings of confidence. Confidence feeds itself and grows unchecked until something happens – a near-miss or an accident.”
So if you’re tempted to use this post as an opportunity to feel superior to other drivers, remember: you’re probably overconfident too! Don’t just humbly confess your imperfections – change your behavior.
Driver distraction is one of the largest causes of traffic accident deaths. The Director of Traffic Safety at the American Automobile Association stated that "The research tells us that somewhere between 25-50 percent of all motor vehicle crashes in this country really have driver distraction as their root cause." The NHTSA reports the number as 16%.
If we are to reduce distractions while driving, we ought to identify which distractors are the worst. One is cell phone use. My solution: Don’t make calls in the car, and turn off your phone’s sound so that you aren’t tempted.
I brainstormed other major distractors and thought of ways to reduce their distracting effects.
Distractor: Looking at directions on my phone as I drive
Distractor: Texting, Facebook, slowing down to gawk at an accident, looking at scenery
Distractor: Other passengers
Distractor: Adjusting the radio
A last interesting fact about distraction, from Wikipedia:
Recent research conducted by British scientists suggests that music can also have an effect [on driving]; classical music is considered to be calming, yet too much could relax the driver to a condition of distraction. On the other hand, hard rock may encourage the driver to step on the acceleration pedal, thus creating a potentially dangerous situation on the road.
Speeding also increases the severity of crashes; “in a 60 km/h speed limit area, the risk of involvement in a casualty crash doubles with each 5 km/h increase in travelling speed above 60 km/h.”
Stop. Think about that for a second. I’ll convert it to the Imperial system for my fellow Americans: “in a [37.3 mph] speed limit area, the risk of involvement in a casualty crash doubles with each [3.1 mph] increase in travelling speed above [37.3 mph].” Remember that next time you drive a 'mere' 5 mph over the limit.
Equally shocking is this paragraph from the Freakonomics blog:
Kockelman et al. estimated that the difference between a crash on a 55 mph limit road and a crash on a 65 mph one means a 24 percent increase in the chances the accident will be fatal. Along with the higher incidence of crashes happening in the first place, a difference in limit between 55 and 65 adds up to a 28 percent increase in the overall fatality count.
Driving too slowly can be dangerous too. An NHTSA presentation cites two studies that found a U-shaped relationship between vehicle speed and crash incidence; thus “Crash rates were lowest for drivers traveling near the mean speed, and increased with deviations above and below the mean.”
However, driving fast is still far more dangerous than driving slowly. This relationship appears to be exponential, as you can see on the tenth slide of the presentation.
Driving conditions are another source of driving risk.
One factor I discovered was the additional risk from driving at night. Nationwide, 49% of fatal crashes happen at night, with a fatality rate per mile of travel about three times as high as daytime hours. (Source)
Berkeley research on 1.4 million fatal crashes found that “fatal crashes were 14% more likely to happen on the first snowy day of the season compared with subsequent ones.” The suggested hypothesis is that people take at least a day to recalibrate their driving behavior in light of new snow.
Another valuable factoid: 77% of weather-related fatalities (and 75% of all crashes!) involve wet pavement.
Statistics are available for other weather-related issues, but the data I found wasn’t adjusted for the relative frequencies of various weather conditions. That’s problematic; it might be that fog, for example, is horrendously dangerous compared to ice or slush, but it’s rarer and thus kills fewer people. I’m interested in looking at appropriately adjusted statistics.
I should note here that I have not personally verified anything posted below. Be sure to look at the original comment and do followup research before depending on these recommendations.
1All bolding in the data was added for emphasis by me.
2The report notes that "57% of crashes were due solely to driver factors, 27% to combined roadway and driver factors, 6% to combined vehicle and driver factors, 3% solely to roadway factors, 3% to combined roadway, driver, and vehicle factors, 2% solely to vehicle factors and 1% to combined roadway and vehicle factors.”