The human factor

How agencies and state DOTs are addressing safety

Safety Article June 15, 2015
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No one can deny it. The safety features loaded into today’s automobiles are not only more abundant than ever before—they are now objectively incredible.
 
High-tech gadgets such as adaptive cruise control, forward collision-avoidance systems, adaptive curve headlights, autonomous braking systems, cameras and sensors everywhere, and, of course, radar are all becoming or are set to become “standard features.”
 
And if all that’s not enough, cars will soon be driving themselves.
 
Autonomous vehicles will rely heavily on the infrastructure. They will sense, calculate and make decisions in their surroundings with LIDAR, radar, GPS and other complex motherboards. In no time, you’ll be in a reclining chair versus the driver’s seat, reading the morning paper and sipping a latte as your vehicle whisks you to work.
 
According to Tech Crunch, “In the next five years, you’ll see somebody introduce autonomous vehicles.”
 
So, while these autonomous vehicles are today “still on the radar,” let’s focus on the reality of our roadways right now, where motor vehicles are still operated by mortal human beings who have full control of the vehicle they are operating and who are still very much capable of making mistakes while behind the wheel.
 
The human factor accounts for just over 50% of the fatal crashes in the U.S. in run-off-the-road mishaps. This is due to a slew of things. Faded, ineffective pavement markings, dangerous edge drop-offs, missing or poorly maintained signs, absence of cable or guardrail and—not least—driver distractions are all contributing factors. And don’t get me started on texting while driving. I am a motorcyclist, and I can honestly say every close call I’ve ever had involves a distracted driver and an iPhone.
 
American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) director of training and business development Donna Clark has said, “Roadway departures are one of the largest contributors to accidents, injuries and fatalities across the country.”
 
In my view, no matter how safe cars are made these days or how self-driving they will be in the future, there will always be a risk of that vehicle—and its occupants—leaving the roadway, and usually not gracefully.
 
So, why not make their “landing zone” a bit more forgiving?
 
A new Roadway Departure Safety Information Clearinghouse will be developed over the next several years through the joint effort of state departments of transportation, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) and ATSSA. This clearinghouse will address three critical roadway safety elements: preventing vehicles from leaving the roadway, reducing the potential of errant vehicle crashes if they do leave the roadway, and mitigating the severity of roadway departure crashes that do occur.
 
 “This [clearinghouse] will be an interactive, actively managed site where safety engineers and others across the country can find comprehensive information on best practices, safety countermeasures, training, publications and research,” said TTI research engineer Roger Bligh. “It will also offer interaction with subject matter experts, peers and industry leaders, all with the goal to help prevent and mitigate roadway departure crashes in all 50 states.”
 
State DOTs can participate in the creation of this Roadway Departure Safety Information Clearinghouse by utilizing their state planning and research funds to join other states in a dedicated pooled funding effort. Those states that join the pooled fund will have the opportunity to be directly involved in guiding and directing the clearinghouse development.
 
The Federal Pooled Fund website can be found at pooledfund.org. The North Carolina Department of Transportation has taken the lead on this initiative. Questions regarding it can be directed to Neil Mastin at jmastin@ncdot.gov. Care about a safe roads future? Check it out. ST

About the author: 
Baron is communications director for the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA).
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