Traffic Safety

Most of us have heard the old expression "Familiarity breeds contempt" many times and perhaps, ironically, it has become a cliché. The beauty of old words of wisdom though, is they usually need only a minimal "dusting off" to be ready to go right back into service. So, let's "unpack" things a bit and see what we end up with. The concept of familiarity can be defined as "Close acquaintance with or knowledge of something." That seems pretty straight forward. To breed has several meanings but I think the most appropriate one for us is "to bring about." Finally, contempt can be defined as "lack of respect or reverence for something." Putting it all together our concept goes something like this: "The more you know about something the less you respect it." Pretty interesting, but you are probably wondering "What's the point?"

I'm going to quit beating around the bush (and playing around with clichés) and jump to the subject I'd like to apply our expression to, which is the modern automobile. California is a state with a long lived and thriving car culture. I, like many of you reading this, could not wait to get my driver's license when I came of age so I could become part of that culture. Driving represented freedom, adulthood, and responsibility. Fast forward over a decade and, while I still enjoy driving, it is often a mundane everyday task not unlike brushing my teeth or cleaning up after dinner. The difference is that if I brush my teeth poorly or leave some dishes in the sink overnight, no one gets hurt, at least nobody but me. Automobiles; however, can cause great harm or even death rather easily.

The term horsepower is a common one and it is an interesting concept from which we can explore the inherent danger of automobiles. To start, horsepower is a unit of measurement. Power is a measure of the amount of work accomplished over a given period of time. Imagine how powerful a horse is compared to a person, pretty impressive. The amount of power a horse can generate for a prolonged period of time is essentially 1 horsepower, while nearly 15 horsepower is the peak power a horse can generate briefly. Contrast the power of a horse with the average person who can generate about 0.1 horsepower almost indefinitely, but can only muster about 1.2 horsepower for a brief period of time. That is a pretty significant difference. Now consider that almost every passenger car on the market these days has well over 100 horsepower standard and performance models can have several hundred horsepower. That is a lot of "power" for one person to be responsible for.

Safely operating an automobile is a complicated task, which is why young drivers are often involved in collisions. With some experience though, the manipulations and multitasking necessary to herd those mechanical beasts along becomes second nature, almost automatic. This increased confidence and skill unfortunately is where new problems begin to arise. Experienced drivers find their mental resources are scarcely being tapped and they become bored while driving. Tasks unrelated to driving become the priority as they commute to and fro. Most of us have been caught up in tasks other than keeping our eyes on the road while driving at some point and some of us have probably experienced a "near miss" or two with other vehicles, due to inattention. A fair number among of us have even been involved in traffic collisions, which is an experience no one want to repeat.

The State of California collects collision information from every county and compiles annual reports. This database is called the Statewide Integrated Traffic Reporting System (SWITRS) and it is usually six to twelve months behind the current date. The most recent data for a full year is from 2009. The SWITRS report for 2009 shows there were 823 traffic collisions reported in Tehama County for the year. All of these crashes caused damage to property, many of them injured people, and a few of them were fatal. The information provided by SWITRS lists a primary collision factor for each crash, which is essentially the sole violation narrowed down as being most responsible for causing the incident. Browsing the SWITRS reports I can tell you for the most part collisions are caused by a few common mistakes: Unsafe speed for the conditions, unsafe starting or backing, unsafe turning movements, failure to yield to oncoming traffic, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The primary collision factors I mentioned are some of the most common and what they all basically boil down to are inattention, including driving under the influence, which is essentially a chemically induced state of inattention with physical impairments to boot. So why aren't drivers paying more attention to the task of driving? From my own personal observations, the factors that most often distract drivers from the task at hand include: Use of cellphones (either talking or texting), use of other electronic devices (stereos, GPS, media players), driving in an altered emotional state (either angry or upset), multitasking (eating, drinking, reading, applying make-up), pets loose inside the interior of the vehicle, and rubbernecking (paying more attention to something outside your vehicle than the road and traffic conditions).

My purpose in writing this article is to encourage everyone in Tehama County to help reduce our total number of traffic collisions. What this will require is for all of us not to hold contempt for the familiar, to respect the awesome power of our automobiles, and to focus on one thing while we are commanding it; driving.

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