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Voice-Activated Systems and Distracted Driving

Two recent studies have called into question the safety of voice-activated technology used by drivers. Distracted driving accidents injured an estimated 421,000 people in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA defines distracted driving as "any activity that could divert a person's attention away from the primary task of driving." The definition does not say anything about taking the driver's hands off the wheel. This is an important thing to note due to the rise of hands-free and voice-activated technology.

According to a Chevrolet spokeswoman, consumers now consider access to music and calls a critical part of the driving experience. One of the two studies analyzed the impact of built-in infotainment systems on the level of driver distraction. The study found that the systems could be highly distracting, particularly in cases where voice activation system made errors or was frustrating to use.

New Child Car Seat Information Available to Parents

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children be placed in car seats until at least the age of 5. All children less than 57 inches tall should use a car seat or a booster seat. Having your child secured in the right seat, installed in the correct manner, is not always a simple matter. One study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 72 percent of car and booster seats are misused in a way that increases the chances that the child will die in a car accident. The NHTSA recently released a new tool that could help parents address their car seat concerns.

A new website helps consumers choose a car seat or booster seat that meets the NHTSA's best practice recommendations. By entering a child's birth date, weight and height, consumers can retrieve a list of acceptable safety seats from various manufacturers. The seats can be searched by type or by ease of use ratings. The list includes the height and weight ranges for the various child seats listed. 

Victim's Compensation Expert Raises GM Death Toll to 21

The compensation expert chosen by General Motors has increased the number of deaths attributed to defective ignition switches to 21. The number is expected to rise higher. The victim's compensation fund has now received 143 claims involving a traffic fatality and a total of 675 claims involving injuries caused by the defective switches. The fund manager, Kenneth Feinberg, plans to provide weekly updates concerning claims tied to the defect.

The compensation fund will continue to accept claims through the end of 2014. It does not cover the full range of recalled GM vehicles. It is limited to 2.6 million small GM vehicles, including Chevy Cobalts and Saturn Ions, known to have included the defective switches. The fund is not capped and it is not clear how much compensation will be paid out to victims of the faulty vehicles.

Report Critical of NHTSA Response to GM Ignition Switch Issue

The House Energy and Commerce Committee released a report concerning the ignition switch defects plaguing General Motors, as well as the response of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the faulty vehicles. The report leveled criticism as GM for failing to take action to protect consumers. It further criticized the NHTSA, claiming that the administration should have known of the danger posed by the defective ignition switches as early as 2007. The report suggested that the lack of a timely response was due to the NHTSA overlooking evidence or not having the expertise to understand it.

The Deputy Administrator of the NHTSA claimed that the group was frustrated in its efforts by GM. He accused GM officials of "actively trying to hide the ball." As evidence, he gave testimony about a policy at GM to avoid the word "defect" in communications, with the goal of keeping the information away from NHTSA investigators.

Investigation into the Speed of Vehicle Recalls

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is tasked with reducing motor vehicle accidents and losses that result. Among the responsibilities taken on by the NHTSA is the duty to investigate motor vehicle defects and determine whether a recall should be ordered for a vehicle with a safety concern. The actions surrounding the ignition switch defects in a number of General Motors vehicles have drawn attention to just how effective the NHTSA has been in that role.

A Senate hearing has been scheduled to discuss the NHTSA handling of the GM ignition problem, as well as how the agency has implemented and enforced safety laws. The hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday and will include testimony from the NHTSA acting administrator, as well as other safety officials and a representative from an auto manufacturer trade group.

New Technology for Combating Distracted Driving

General Motors is investing in new technology designed to track the eyes and face of the people driving their vehicles. The information gathered is used to determine whether a driver is succumbing to fatigue or distraction. If a driver turns his or her attention away from the road for too long, such devices could trigger a warning tone or other form of correction.

GM's contract is with Seeing Machines, a company that has already worked with trucking and mining companies to analyze operator attention. Eye tracking and face tracking technology is one method of reducing the car accidents caused by distracted drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,328 traffic fatalities in 2012 were the result of distraction. An additional 421,000 people suffered injuries in this type of accident.

A New Tool for Finding Auto Recall Information

When car makers discover a defect that impacts the safety of a vehicle, they are required to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as vehicle owners, dealers and distributors. What those groups do with that information varies. Accidents continue to cause injuries and deaths even after safety problems are identified and these parties are informed.

Part of the problem is that the motivation to have the repairs done is different depending on the person in charge of the vehicle. Rental car agencies may be reluctant to take a group of cars out of their fleet even though the cost of repairs is paid by the auto maker. Not all car owners are in a position to have repairs done when they receive a recall notice in the mail. Finally, despite the effort that goes into publicizing a recall, there are many cases where a vehicle owner is not aware that a car is in need of important repairs.

The Impact of Texting Bans on Fatal Accidents

Recent research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health analyzed the impact of texting bans and found that they have been effective. Illinois was one of 24 states to ban texting by drivers of any age during the period analyzed in the study, 2000 to 2010. An additional seven states banned texting by young drivers with provisional licenses. Illinois was also among the states that allowed primary enforcement of the texting ban. That means that police officers here can stop and cite a driver solely for the act of texting behind the wheel. States with secondary enforcement statutes only allow drivers to be cited for texting after they have been stopped for some other offense.

The UAB study found that states with a texting ban allowing for primary enforcement saw a reduction in traffic deaths of roughly three percent. Texting bans that targeted young drivers and allowed for primary enforcement saw a reduction in teen driving fatalities of 11 percent. States that banned all handheld cell phone use saw the largest reduction in fatal traffic accidents among drivers ages 22 to 64. The author of the study said that the texting bans saved 19 deaths per year in the states with primary enforcement bans covering drivers of all ages.

Controversy Over Veto of Truck Speed Limit Law

A measure that passed unanimously in the Illinois House and Senate was vetoed by Governor Quinn this week. The law would have raised the speed limit for trucks traveling on interstates in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties from 55 miles per hour to 60. The law was positioned as a return to the same speed differential that existed prior to the State raising interstate speed limits for cars on these roads to 70 from 65. Governor Quinn defended the veto on the grounds that higher speed limits have been linked to an increase in fatal traffic accidents in numerous studies.

Governor Quinn cited the July 21 truck accident on Interstate 55 when discussing truck safety. That accident involved a truck that was allegedly speeding in a work zone. It led to five fatalities. The Governor referred to the bill as providing "convenience of increased speed for truckers." The sponsor of the bill, Senator Jim Oberweis, claims the change "would make the roads safer." The true safety impact would come down to whether the accidents caused by the increased speed limit were offset by a reduction in crashes caused by the reduced speed differential between trucks and cars.

The Growing Problem of Truck Accidents

From 2009 to 2012, car accident fatalities dropped 1.74 percent according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The drop was typical of the past 15 years during which fatal crashes fell substantially. NHTSA data indicates that there were 42,013 motor vehicle deaths in 1997 compared to 33,561 in 2012. That decrease occurred despite a nearly 14 percent increase in the total miles driven during that time period.

Recent statistics regarding truck accident fatalities paint a different picture. From 2009 to 2012, fatal truck crashes grew by more than 18 percent, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. NHTSA data indicates that the increase in fatalities happened despite a drop in the total distance traveled by trucks and a drop in the number of trucks on the road. On a per-mile-driven basis, semi trucks are becoming more dangerous.

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