Secretary LaHood Should Focus on Real Driving Dangers

While DOT Secretary LaHood obsesses over cell-phone use, a new report from the Society of Automotive Engineers details how improper use of turn signals causes twice as many accidents as distracted driving. (Cell-phone usage is one aspect of distracted driving.)

According to Autoblog:

A total of 12,000 turning and lane-changing vehicles were observed with visible turn signal usage (or neglect) data recorded. The study shows that the neglect rate for lane changing vehicles is 48% and the neglect rate for turning vehicles is 25%. That translates to an astonishing 750 billion times a year that drivers neglect turn signals on U.S. roadways, or over 2 billion times per day. Each incident of neglect elevates the risk of a multi-vehicle crash.

Obviously, not every absent turn signal results in a crash, but the study concludes that the collective result of turn signal neglect is as many as 2 million crashes per year. In comparison, the U.S. Department of Transportation states that Distracted Driving causes about 950,000 crashes per year, so Turn Signal Neglect is actually a more significant safety issue. While the causes and remedies to combat Distracted Driving remain a matter of ongoing debate, the remedy for Turn Signal Neglect is simple, direct, effective, and cost-saving: The singular cause is driver neglect.

There are two solutions to this problem. The first is through technology. “Smart Turn Signals” which use vehicle sensors and computer control assist the driver in turning on and turning off turn signals. Drivers are encouraged to turn signals on via a warning light similar to the flashing dashboard light that reminds drivers to use their seatbelt. Signals turn off automatically after a turn. This new technology senses turning motions more precisely than current systems. This Smart Turn Signal has been in development for several years. The Society of Professional Engineers indicates that this technology will have no new costs since the vehicle sensors needed are already required equipment on all new cars. However, there could still be implementation issues. As a result this solution should not be mandated. However, it would be an excellent option on new vehicles.

The second solution is education. The NHTSA can detail in fact-based campaigns why turn signals are important. Most states require use of a turn signal to make a left or right turn, to pull away from the curb, and to switch lanes. Some drivers may not fully understand all turn signal laws. A national campaign can highlight turn signal safety and laws that apply in every state.

This study provides further proof that Secretary LaHood’s anti cell-phone campaign is misplaced. An earlier post highlighted the different distractions that drivers face including the radio, the application of make-up, children in the backseat and mechanical problems. This research highlights the number of yearly accidents (2,000,000) caused by improper turn signals usage dwarfs the number of accidents caused by cell phone usage. All yearly distracted driving accidents (which include cell phones) combined total 950,000. Although cell phone use can distract the driver, placing undue emphasis on cell phone safety could cause other safety issues such as improper turn signal use to be overlooked.

Secretary LaHood has made usage of cell phones his top issue. New facts are unlikely to change his crusade. Perhaps he can add turn signal safety to his anti cell-phone campaign. While the two important safety issues are not the most pressing problems for the transportation community, at least his press releases will have a little more variety.

Baruch Feigenbaum is senior managing director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation and lead author of Reason's Annual Highway Report.