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Eight things that can dramatically improve auto safety

Consumer Reports News: February 08, 2010 11:26 AM

Toyota’s recent problems with sticking accelerators, floor-mat entrapment, and brake problems have brought automotive safety sharply into focus. There have been 19 deaths linked to unintended acceleration in Toyotas over the past 10 years, according to one analysis. And the company needs to address all of its safety issues as quickly as possible. But there is far more that can be done to reduce the approximately 37,000 deaths that occur on American roads every year:

What drivers can do

Buckle up. Wearing a safety belt is the simplest means of cutting deaths and serious injuries on the road. In 2008, some 14,000 fatalities involved unrestrained occupants.

Curb drinking and driving. Alcohol was involved in nearly 12,000 fatalities in 2008, or 32 percent of all highway deaths. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, three in every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lives. If we all took small measures like choosing a designated driver or taking the keys away from friends who have had too much to drink, we can help prevent thousands of deaths per year.

Avoid distractions. Distracted driving rivals drunken driving in its danger. A University of Utah study found that distraction from cell-phone use (whether hand-held or hands-free) can slow a driver's reaction time as much as having a blood-alcohol concentration at the .08 percent limit. Nearly 6,000 deaths were attributed to distracted driving in 2008. Don’t talk on a cell phone or send or read text messages, or perform any other activities that take your eyes or your mind off the road.

Mind your speed. Excessive speed was involved more than 11,000 vehicle-accident-related deaths—31 percent—in 2008. Drive at the posted speed limit in optimum driving conditions and slow down when weather conditions such as fog, wind, rain, snow, or ice can make driving hazardous.

Know how to handle your car. Would you know what to do if your car suddenly accelerated or if you lost braking ability? We’ve found that hitting the brake pedal and shifting into Neutral is the most effective of regaining control of a runaway car. But to be ready for such a situation, you should become familiar with shifting into Neutral instantly, without thinking or hunting for the gear. Practice at low speeds in a safe location. Also, know where the emergency brake is and how to grab it or push it quickly.

Maintain your tires. Keeping tires properly inflated is an easy and effective step you can take to avoid a flat tire or dangerous blowout, which can result in losing vehicle control. Driving on balding tires is dangerous, as well. Maintain tread depth of at least 1/8-inch, inspect your tires and check the tire inflation pressure at least once a month, and have them examined annually by a mechanic as part of your vehicle’s safety inspection.

What the government can do
Establish graduated licensing programs. Young drivers, especially young male drivers, are disproportionately involved in fatal crashes. Graduated licensing grants driving privileges to teen drivers over time. It limits how many passengers a teen driver can carry and what hours an unsupervised teen is allowed behind the wheel. Graduated licensing is a proven lifesaver, but some states’ laws are stronger than others are. In states where it’s been studied, teen crash rates have dropped 10 to 30 percent since the laws were enacted. Parental enforcement of these programs is also key to reducing teen deaths.

Design more traffic rotaries. Traffic rotaries, or roundabouts, are far safer and more effective than traditional intersections with stop signs and traffic lights. They also reduce dangerous side-impact crashes. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that roundabouts have reduced injury crashes in some areas by as much as 80 percent.

Gordon Hard with Liza Barth

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