Getting Hit By a Car is Like Falling Off a Cliff – Precipice Pictures

A few months ago, while perusing my favorite international safety organization, the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group (IRTAD), I came across a recent report titled Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System. It’s 172 pages of Vision Zero talk, which made for excellent evening reading. Within the report and within a section on the efforts various countries had made to raise awareness of the dangers of auto traffic, I came across this series of graphics (on page 46) published by one of the pioneers of Vision Zero, Sweden.

Precipice pictures used in Sweden to communicate inherent road safety risks (credit: IRTAD)
Precipice pictures used in Sweden to communicate inherent road safety risks (credit: IRTAD)

Specifically, the Swedish Transportation Agency, the Swedish equivalent of the NHTSA, sought to show the public in a naturally understandable way how the risks we exposed ourselves to while driving were significant ones, based on the premise that people were inherently more likely to understand the risks of high levels of kinetic energy when applied vertically compared to when applied horizontally.

To put it simply, people naturally understand how dangerous it is to fall from great heights than we get how dangerous it is to crash into obstacles at high speeds. There are likely strong evolutionary reasons related to this that have to do with falling from trees and off cliffs, but whatever the reason, this way of connecting with people seems to have some effect in raising risk awareness.

Survival speeds and Shared Responsibilities

As a reminder, Vision Zero principles are based on the ideas that road systems should be designed in ways that eliminate the risk of death or serious injury from auto use. In contrast to the predominant way of approaching road safety in the US and in most low- and middle-income countries, the risks and responsibilities of road use are not primarily assumed to rest with the end user (e.g., the passenger vehicle occupant, the cyclist, the pedestrian, the child), but are designed to be shared equally across road users, road designers, policy makers, and vehicle manufacturers.

As a result, in the examples above, it’s not simply the responsibility of the car driver to avoid being hit by the truck while navigating the turn, or the pedestrian to avoid being hit by a motor vehicle while crossing the street. In the car/truck example, both drivers should certainly be paying attention, but the truck should be designed in a way that minimizes the risk of injury it poses to others relative to its size, while the car should also be designed to offer as much protection as reasonably possible (e.g., being equipped with a crashworthy structure, seat belts, airbags, etc). Additionally, the roadway, being one that presents a risk of head-on vehicle-vehicle collisions, should have a posted and enforced speed limit no greater than 70 kph, or 43 mph, not 45 or 50 or 55 or even 65 mph as is the case in many rural areas throughout the United States.

In the second example, the zebra crossing should be clearly marked and clearly visible to give pedestrians a clear view of traffic and traffic a clear view of pedestrians. The pedestrian should have the right of way, always, and that right of way should always be defended and enforced. The traffic on that road should not be traveling at any higher than 30 kph, or 18 mph, since it has the potential to come into contact with pedestrians, and the survival rate when hit at under 20 mph is at around 95%. The roadway should be narrow enough to naturally encourage motorized traffic to travel more slowly and cautiously, as well as to make it possible for pedestrians to traverse it without spending exorbitant amounts of time in a highly vulnerable position.

These are just a handful of safety modifications that should be present in two situations highlighted above. How many of them do you find present when you find yourself in either of the above scenarios? Because each factor, when present, reduces the risk of injury or death if and when a collision occurs while also reducing the risks of collisions occurring to begin with. Conversely, each factor, when absent, increases the risk of collision while simultaneously increasing injury and fatality risks should said collisions occur.

Best practice in auto safety isn’t a mystery; we know what should be done. The trick is to convince the people with the power to put best practices into place that it’s worth more to make these changes than it is to accept things the way they are.

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When Should Your Teenager Get a Driver’s License? Not Before 18!

The later teens drive independently, the safer they become behind the wheel
The later teens drive independently, the safer they become behind the wheel

In the United States, we have a heavy driving culture. Millions of teenagers began driving throughout the country as soon as they’re eligible to take their driver tests, which is at 16 in most states, with the notable exception of New Jersey at 17. However, as is often the case when comparing actual practices to best practices, just because teens can legally drive from when they turn 16 doesn’t mean this is what’s best–neither for teens, nor for society. An analysis of the risk teen drivers pose to themselves and others, as well as comparisons of driving and licensing patterns in comparable countries around the globe, suggests the age for independent driving and licensing shouldn’t be 16, but 18. Let’s take a closer look at why together.

Teens are most likely to be involved in fatal collisions at 16

 The numbers are clear: 16-year-olds are more likely to be involved in collisions, fatal or otherwise, than drivers of any other age. Specifically, the IIHS chart above notes the rate of fatal crash involvement per 100 million miles traveled was 9.1 at 16, compared to 6.6 at 17 and 3.8 at 18. From 18, the rate of fatal crash involvement remained virtually constant between 3.6 and 3.8 until drivers reached the 30-34 age bracket, at which point the rate of fatal crash involvement dropped again to 1.8. I’ve written about teen crash involvement before, and while the risks are primarily related to male teens, this is a problem we need to tackle with all teenagers and all parents.

This chart alone explains why teenagers shouldn’t drive alone at 16. Simply waiting a year cuts the risk of death by 27%, and waiting another year until 18 before independent driving cuts the risk by 58% compared to the risk of death faced by a 16-year-old driver. To put it another way, if 100 16-year-olds were involved in fatal crashes in their first (and final) year of driving, it’s likely that 42 of them would have survived their first year of driving had that cohort of 100 drivers begun driving at age 18 instead of at age 16.

If we simply delay our children’s independent driving by a couple of years, they effectively become as safe as drivers nearly a decade older. We need to give them the gift of time.

Delaying licensing until 18 gives parents more time to drive with their teens

Besides the maturity that comes with having two additional years of life experience, a significant reason why teenagers are safer drivers at 18 than they are at 16 is because they have more experience behind the wheel. However, what we want is to give them supervised experience so they aren’t gaining experience while engaging in risky behavior (e.g., driving at night, driving with passengers, having minimal supervised hours, etc). To that end, when we require our teens to wait before obtaining their licenses, we can spend more time driving with them and modeling and monitoring safer driving tactics. We can take the time to choose safer vehicles for them rather than simply choosing the cheapest ones we can find because we feel pressured to reward them as soon as they turn 16.

Remember: teenagers driving in and of itself isn’t the problem; most teens manage to drive responsibly enough while under their learners’ permits or while taking their drivers’ tests to obtain licenses. The problem is that when teenagers drive on their own, there is a strong tendency for them to leave behind responsible driving habits and engage in risky behavior. The more time we spend driving with them, the more likely they are to internalize safe driving habits that they’ll be more likely to use when we don’t drive with them.

Sweden and Norway don’t license their teens until  they turn 18

Finally, it’s worth considering the practices of countries with significantly safer driving cultures than those domestically. Sweden and Norway feature two of the lowest auto death rates on the planet per capita (at <3/100,000 people, compared to roughly 10-11/100,000 in the US), and both countries also feature the lowest rates of child auto fatalities on the globe. What do they do to keep their youngest drivers safe?

You guessed it: both countries restrict the age of licensure for car driving to 18. Both countries allow supervised driving before 18, just as in the US, but neither country allows teenagers to get behind the wheel without adults until they turn 18, without exception. They have extensive driver preparation and training programs as well, and in Norway, in particular, it can cost up to $4,000 to obtain one’s license before all is said and done, due to the various safety classes one must take on the way to licensure.
What can we take away from all of this?

Driving is a serious responsibility, not only for the driver but for every other citizen who may be impacted by the driver’s competence. In Sweden and Norway, where citizens are less likely to die from auto traffic than in any other wealthy country on the planet, no one drives a car before s/he turns 18. There’s just too much at stake. On the way to driving at 18, teens get lots of supervised practice, take lots of classes, and need to prove their competence in a number of ways. They take driving seriously there. Here, we lose approximately 2,600 13-19-year-olds each year. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change the driving culture.

However, it starts with changing how we view driving, and how easily we’re willing to turn over the keys to our children. We can’t wait for the laws of 50 states to come together toward best practice; there isn’t a single state that’s following best practices yet. But as parents, we can take the first steps and make sure we aren’t putting our children in harm’s way any sooner than necessary, and not a minute before we’ve shared everything we know with them about safe driving. The stakes are too high to treat driving as a simple rite of passage.

If you find the information on car safety, recommended car seats, and car seat reviews on this car seat blog helpful, you can bookmark and shop through this Amazon link. Canadians can bookmark and shop through this link.

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35,000 Americans will die this year on the road. You don't have to be one of them. A car seat and car safety blog to promote best practices for families.