Archives for accidents



How Drunk Is Too Drunk to Drive?

Our podcast “The Suicide Paradox” featured sociologist David Phillips, who spoke about his research on copycat suicides (a phenomenon he calls “the Werther Effect”). More recently, Philips has been studying drunk driving. Particularly, he’s been looking at drivers who are merely “buzzed” — with 0.01 percent blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) — and has found that the severity of life-threatening motor vehicle accidents increases significantly at BACs far lower than the current U.S. limit of 0.08 percent. In an email, Philips describes his latest research on buzzed drivers:

My current research, just published in Injury Prevention, shows that even minimally buzzed drivers (with BAC=0.01%) are 46% more likely to be blamed for an accident than are the sober drivers they collide with. This indicates that there is no safe level of alcohol for drivers: any amount of alcohol markedly increases the risk to drivers and their passengers. We reached this conclusion after examining an official, U.S. dataset of more than 570,000 car crashes. The findings have implications for drivers, passengers, police, judges, lawyers, insurance companies, advocacy organizations (like MADD) and regulatory agencies.

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Would a Computer-Driven Vehicle Make This Kind of Error?

Reading about the horrific train crash in Spain that killed at least 80, and thinking back to the (rare) fatal airplane crash in San Francisco brought to mind the ride I took in a driverless car a few months back at Carnegie Mellon University. Many people still distrust a computer to get them from Point A to B. How long will it be before our thinking changes and we distrust humans to do the same? The train and plane crashes both appear to be due to human error, as are the vast majority of automobile crashes (which kill more than 1 million people worldwide each year).

I haven’t spent all that much time in Spain but one of the most striking observations from a recent visit was how hard it is to buy a train ticket from a machine. In many cases, you have to wait in (long) line for a human ticket-seller. Whenever I asked why, I was told this was simply done to protect jobs — an understandable, if unsatisfying, defense in a country with 27% unemployment.

It does make me wonder how much a country or culture with a strong sense of job protection will be resistant to technological changes purely on employment grounds, even if they might produce large gains for the greater good.



A Solution to Car Accident Rubbernecking: Setting Screens

A few posts ago I wrote a piece about traffic incidents —some of them quite bizarre—that can cause road congestion. Many of these are due to reasonable or at least understandable causes; for example, we need to have road construction, although here in L.A. we wish we didn’t (more about our “Carmageddon” when the results come in.)
But perhaps the most galling and unnecessary source of incident-related congestion is “rubbernecking.” As we all know, terrific jams can be caused even when the wreck(s) is moved out of the traffic lanes, as passing drivers gape at the carnage. It’s been quite a long time since we shared a common ancestor with the vulture, but evidently an evolutionary tie is still there.

Rubbernecking is one of the more interesting cases of moral whipsawing I can think of. All the time we sit in the jam we curse the drivers in front of us for their blood lust. But when it’s our turn at the front of the line… well, just a quick peek. Read More »



Helmetless Motorcyclist Killed While Riding to Overturn Helmet Law

From the (Syracuse) Post-Standard:

A Parish man who was participating in a motorcycle helmet protest ride was killed this afternoon when he went over the handlebars of his motorcycle and injured his head on the pavement, state police said.

Philip A. Contos, 55, of 45 East St., Parish, was not wearing a helmet while driving a 1983 Harley Davidson motorcycle south on Route 11 in Onondaga with a large group of other motorcyclists, troopers said. …

Evidence at the scene and information from the attending physician indicate Contos would have survived if he had been wearing a Department of Transportation approved helmet, troopers said.

When foreign friends visit the States and are puzzled by some of the quirks of our Government, I often point to helmet laws — which differ state by state — as an example of how things work, or fail to work, depending on your point of view.

If the strongest argument in favor of a universal helmet law is that we all share medical and emergency costs to some degree and should therefore minimize them, what is the strong argument against such a law?

One bizarre unintended consequence of the rollback in helmet laws: more human organs available for transplantation. From SuperFreakonomics Illustrated:

Between 1994 and 2007, six states repealed laws that required all motorcyclists to wear helmets. Here’s a look at per-capita organ donations from male victims of motor-vehicle crashes in those states versus all other states.*

*See Stacy Dickert-Conlin, Todd Elder, and Brian Moore, “Donorcycles: Motorcycle Helmet Laws and the Supply of Organ Donors.”



Seeing Red: Why L.A. Needs to Keep its Traffic Light Cameras

Thus far I’ve tried to avoid weighing in on the issue of red light cameras (RLCs) in an effort to keep my comments section free of any more angry posts than I normally get, and my email free of complaints from friends and relatives (you know who you are) who’ve been caught in the past. However, my hand has been forced by the Los Angeles City Council’s decision to consider a measure to eliminate our RLC program.

RLCs are not particularly popular. In fact, I have found that many people vehemently hate them. To give an example, the Chicago Tribune conducted a poll in 2009 showing that 53 percent of voters supported the cameras, while 41 percent opposed them. These percentages basically flipped when voters were asked if they wanted RLCs in their own neighborhood. This is a bit reminiscent of Monty Python’s proposal to “tax foreigners living abroad.” Read More »



When That Child in the Street Is an Optical Illusion

Let’s say you live or work in an area where there are a lot of vulnerable pedestrians – kids, maybe – and a lot of cars as well, and that the cars habitually drive too fast for your taste.

What do you do? Read More »



Why Does Driving Bring Out the Worst in People?

How is a car like the Internet?

A reader named William Mack writes in with an interesting observation and question. It echoes a conversation I recently had with a friend who had been on the receiving end of some road rage — in a New York City parking garage, of all places. The driver behind her simply couldn’t wait for her to pull in, so he rammed her. Read More »



Who Causes Cyclists' Deaths?

More than 52,000 bicyclists have been killed in bicycle traffic accidents in the U.S. over the 80 years the federal government has been keeping records. When it comes to sharing the road with cars, many people seem to assume that such accidents are usually the cyclist’s fault, a result of reckless or aggressive riding. But an analysis of police reports on 2,752 bike-car accidents in Toronto found that clumsy or inattentive driving by motorists was the cause of 90 percent of these crashes. Read More »