A Plea to Drivers

Driving a car: Often faster than taking a bus, yet also more dangerous. As has been previously written about on streets.mn and elsewhere, tens of thousands of people die every year in car accidents in the United States. Also written about on streets.mn are the thousands of pedestrians killed by drivers.

Not really any new news there, and certainly the average person who consumes >.5 hours of infotainment content per week is probably at least somewhat aware that this is a situation that is going on. But it often feels like people don’t quite grasp it, either.

Has anyone else seen the following commercial?

Has anyone else noticed how crazy this commercial is? Are they advertising a tank? You know what everyone is scared of? Flying. You know what airlines don’t do? Run commercials where everyone lands at O’Hare and are surprised they’re alive. It’s more dangerous to drive to the airport than it is to fly somewhere. It’s really easy to not actually pay attention to what’s going on when you’re watching TV.

Also, it’s apparently really easy to not pay attention to what’s going on when you’re driving a car:

This is also objectively crazy, and rarely acknowledged as such. There are many similar commercials, though this one just started running recently. Please pay attention to what you’re doing while careening sixty miles an hour towards your business meeting. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration keeps lots of numbers at website called distraction.gov, which is a great name for a website. A report of theirs summarizing data from 2011 states that an estimated 9% of all drivers are using a phone at any given time while driving, however, based on my experience looking into car windows, this number is in fact closer to 100%.

Please do not refresh Instagram while driving a Ford Explorer on Hennepin Avenue. You might kill someone, and then you’ll have to live with having killed someone so that you could look at a sepia colored picture of a salami sandwich, and also that person will be dead. Are you reading this right now while driving? Please do not do that.

We could probably use stronger laws about this.

Note: That first commercial played has almost certainly played in the car of someone who was driving while also watching TV in the “background.” Maybe even on the face of the driver?

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.

17 thoughts on “A Plea to Drivers

  1. Zack

    I think you kind of missed your own point a little by calling them accidents in the second sentence. As you point out, most crashes are anything but accidents, and are instead caused by carelessness, inattention, or impairment, things that are anything but accidental.

    1. jeffk

      I think urbanists can get a little carried away with this attitude towards accidents. Yes, they are caused by carelessness, to an extent, but just as urbanists don’t expect perfect but instead realistic pedestrian behavior, the same should be true with drivers. No doubt everyone reading this has at some point been careless for a moment while driving; fortunately most of us are lucky enough not to have caused a disaster at that particular moment.

      This is all a numbers game and while encouraging responsibility amoung those operating 4000 lb vehicles isn’t a bad thing, we do the most for our cause by recognizing “accidents” as an unavoidable consequence of our reliance on the car, coupled with bad road design, rather than take our fury out on individual motorists.

      1. Rosa

        It took me a long time to articulate this, thining about your comment, but I think the problem with that “bad design” attitude is that underlying the bad design is very charitable assumptions about drivers. Every driver is basically assumed to be a good driver until *after* they kill someone – even sometimes afterward, if it’s seen as something that can happen to anyone.

        We have a lot of bad design and bad cultural practice based on those assumptions. Such as the practice of having cars be able to turn through walk lights or turn on red lights. Of course cars will stop for pedestrians, so we don’t need to restrict them, right? Except we KNOW that isn’t true. We have a lot of deaths to prove it, and anyone who walks or bikes knows you can’t rely on cars to stop just because you have the walk sign.

        Or the very common habit of cars stopping in instead of before the crosswalk. Because of course if there were a pedestrian the driver would see them and not hit them. Except again we know that’s not true – the habit should be to stop BEFORE the crosswalk because the assumption should be that sometimes drivers are distracted and not looking.

        And we are very hesitant to take away people’s driving licenses just because we have evidence that they are not really up to the task. Just because they are addicted to alcohol, or commonly drive sleepy, or have health problems. There’s no real requirement to show skill to keep a license.

        I know when older relatives of mine have been clearly not OK to drive (my grandmother got gout so bad she had to use her hand to lift her right leg from the gas to the brake pedal; my husband’s grandfather was driving back and forth from Milwaukee to Madison weekly even as mysterious dents started appearing on his car; another relative was falling asleep at random times of day and presumably behind the wheel during her long commute) it was very, very hard to get them to stop driving.

        So really we only invoke the “everyone is distracted sometimes” when we’re trying to excuse drivers. Otherwise we assume every driver is alert and capable of the basically superhuman effort of making lots of good, fast decisions at 45 or 75 mph, even though it’s not true.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    My wife and I don’t watch much TV but we recently saw that commercial and had the same reaction.

    I’m concerned that all of these sensors for people who can’t drive slow enough to figure out what’s just outside their deadly cage will form a second wave of deadly design for our urban streets.

    “Forgiving design” was the first wave of deadly design, as Chuck talks about in Misunderstanding Mobility. Sure, forgiving design added to safety. On rural or grade separated high speed roadways. We have gentle curves, wide shoulders, and other features which make this driving safer. But then we forgot about context, and pushed forgiving design standards onto our urban streets. This is why Hiawatha can’t have trees or buildings, because there’s a “clear zone” in case someone jumps the curb. And there’s no “side friction” allowed, except for bikers and pedestrians, because cars could run into that (but side friction slows drivers on urban streets, making them safer for everyone).

    This second wave of forgiving design is happening with gizmos inside cars. These things might be great on a rural high-speed road, but they take away driver responsibility and attentiveness on urban streets. The result may very well be more death.

    1. Sean Hayford Oleary

      Minor note to the issues of the clear zone, I think you’ll appreciate this interaction between one Edina city council members and the city engineers and other councilors:

      They were also concerned about raised planters along the side of the road. A fatality resulted in a car hitting a raised planter on a median in Minneapolis, city Engineer Wayne Houle said. Council members pointed out that a car would hit the planters if it went off France Avenue.

      “If they’re concerned a motor vehicle is going to strike something, I don’t want that something to be a pedestrian,” Councilmember Joni Bennett said.

    2. Rosa

      What makes me mad is the idea that it’s OK for cars to have all these lit-up screens inside of them that make it harder to see out when it’s dark, and in response the rest of us – I’ve even seen this advocated for joggers & pedestrians – should be wearing reflectors & super bright lights. Why not limit the light inside the car instead? You could do that at the manufacturer level even.

  3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    It amazes me that Minnesota still allows talking on a phone without a hands free device, a reform so basic I thought it was already ubiquitous years ago.

    1. Matt Brillhart

      Agreed. It is crazy that we still allow people to talk on hand-held cell phones while driving. We really need to start lobbying Senator Scott Dibble and Representative Frank Hornstein (transporation chairs of their respective legislative bodies) to make this change. I assume it would pass with a wide bipartisan majority. I’m kind of surprised it didn’t come up in 2013-14…a biennium with little action on transportation issues. It seems like the provision could have been stuck into a general transportation bill, especially with one-party rule.

      1. David W

        Even the current ban on texting is very limited and seems difficult to enforce. It is illegal to read, compose, or send an “electronic message” with a wireless communications device while driving.

        There was a proposal to extend the ban to any use of a wireless communications device (except voice-activated, hands-free use) a few years ago. It seemed to get some traction in the Senate but it didn’t make it into the policy bill and never came up for a vote. Other proposals have gone nowhere. This doesn’t seem to be a priority.

      2. Steve L

        Do you have a link to any studies that show that non-hands-free bans have any measurable impact on public safety? Everything I’ve read says that there is no measurable impact (possibly excluding a very short initial period of high compliance due to increased awareness and novelty of a ban).

      3. Steve H

        That would help, but I think for many people even a hands free device is too much of a distraction. I see a fair number of drivers talking away and I can tell that they are totally disengaged from where they actually are or what they’re doing at the moment. I know that sometimes people have legitimate reasons for using the phone in their cars, but when I see every other driver talking away I have to wonder just what the hell everyone has to say that’s so important.

  4. David W

    I sometimes count texting drivers while waiting for the bus. I have trouble understanding how estimates can be as low as 9%. Of course some areas are noticeably worse than others, probably because of demographics and features of the road. Walk south on Hennepin past the Walker Art Center in the early evening and it looks like around 75% of drivers are texting.

    Even scarier than watching these people from the sidewalk is being a passenger in their car. Not having a car, I don’t drive often. But when I do drive, I have two rules: two hands on the wheel, two eyes on the road.

    1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author

      I was actually thinking of including the exact same anecdote, but the post was already too first person-ey. For real, at times when walking across the eleven lane jumble of the bottleneck, I’ve observed everyone stopped at the light staring at their damn phones. I try not to feign too much offense on the Internet, but my God, you might kill yourself/someone else to refresh your email for ninth time since leaving the office half an hour ago.

  5. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    We should stand on the side of the street with a sign that reads “Honk if you’re NOT texting!” and see what happens.

  6. Monte

    I guess I’m not clear what point the article is trying to make. I saw the commercial and liked it and thought it was a good commercial for Subaru. To the average driver, Subarus are roomy, reliable, safe, available AWD in a smaller vehicle and get terrible gas mileage. So it makes sense to advertise to reenforce the perceived strengths (and if you were advertising the Yaris, you’d advertise how fuel efficient it is, not how much space is in the trunk). You don’t see airlines advertising how safe they are because realistically most people know that they’re pretty safe- Southwest could advertise that they’ve never lost a passenger due to flight operations but instead they advertise how cheap they are and how outrageous bag fees are.

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