Our Traffic Safety Culture

By Jim Hanni
We incurred another staggering 33,963 traffic fatalities in 2009. While last year’s fatalities represent almost a 9 percent decline from the previous year, someone now dies every 15 ½ minutes in a crash, instead of one every 14 minutes the previous year. One death should concern us, but deaths this frequently is an outrage! But where’s the outrage?!
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently completed its third annual Traffic Safety Culture Index, finding that 52 percent of drivers said they feel less safe on the roads now than they did five years ago. That’s up from 35 percent last year. The leading reason cited was distracted driving, with 88 percent of motorists rating drivers who text and email as a very serious threat to their safety.
The study showed that the majority of drivers (62 percent) feel that talking on a cell phone is a very serious threat to safety, but they don’t always behave accordingly, or believe that others share these views. In fact, nearly 70 percent of those surveyed admitted to talking on their phones and 24 percent said they read or sent text messages or emails while driving in the previous month.
Unlike the social stigma surrounding drinking and driving, driving while texting, emailing or talking on the phone aren’t perceived as an egregious behavior despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the serious crash risk these behaviors pose. These latest findings help identify crucial disconnects between public perceptions and behaviors.
Traffic Safety touches our lives with serious consequences. Half of survey respondents report having been involved in a serious crash, having had a friend or relative injured or killed in a crash, or both. “Doing as I say, not as I do” is a human characteristic, but there are ways to change human behaviors. We need to recognize that driving is a complex human activity for which much is taken for granted.
Yet in other countries, other cultures, humans are accepted for the flawed individuals/drivers they are and focus on creating a system that recognizes and tries to compensate. This isn’t to say people shouldn’t be held accountable for irresponsible behavior. It IS to say, however, that they shouldn’t be held accountable for being human, that is, imperfect.
There is much we can do structurally, organizationally, at the policy level that will produce changes in individual behavior. However, until we build cars that assure belt use and other safety features, organizations prohibit employees from using communication devices while driving, elected officials and regulators start basing policies and programs on science rather than personal beliefs, and until investments are made strategically, transparently, accountably in safe roadway development--like we already do to fight wars and disease--the carnage will continue. We must start with each one of us, doing our part to practice and advocate traffic safety to change this culture of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Jim Hanni is the executive vice president of public and government affairs for AAA Kansas. 

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