Johannesburg - You may be surprised to learn that the most dangerous type of car crash isn’t necessarily what you thought.

Ask most people what crash they fear most and the typical answer would be another vehicle crashing into them. A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in the United States on fatal crashes reveals that 96 percent of drivers fear they’re going to be hit by somebody running a red light, 86 percent are scared of being hit by a distracted driver.

In fact, it turns out that most traffic deaths (55 percent) in the United States happen in crashes that involve only one vehicle. These are caused by drivers who are drunk, inattentive, distracted, or drowsy, while other factors include speed, bad weather, and overcorrection of the vehicle during crash-avoiding manoeuvres.

The AAA found that distracted driving plays a big part, contributing to more than 5000 traffic fatalities in that country each year, with modern infotainment systems causing increased visual and mental distractions behind the wheel.

Drivers spend more than half their time focussed on things other than driving, and text messaging behind the wheel is one of the riskiest things a driver can do as it involves manual, visual, and mental distraction simultaneously.

Misperception

Being distracted while driving goes much further than talking on your cellphone or texting while driving. It includes putting on make-up or your tie, eating, drinking, or turning around to shout at the kids in the back seat. Anything that prevents you from having both your hands on the steering wheel should be avoided while driving.

Any kind of cell phone use can be risky, says the AAA. There is a public misperception that using a hands-free cell phone reduces risk but in fact hands-free features, increasingly common in new vehicles, are actually among the most mentally distracting. Just because a driver’s eyes are on the road and hands are on the wheel doesn’t mean that they are safely focusing on driving.

The study found that even modern technologies such as voice-based and touchscreen features can take drivers’ eyes and mental focus off the road and hands off the wheel for potentially dangerous periods of time.

Modern infotainment systems make placing a phone call or operating the radio more complicated by requiring drivers to manoeuvre through complex menu systems using touchscreens or voice commands rather than use of simple knobs or buttons. Modern cars are also getting ever more ‘connected’ with systems that allow drivers to surf the web, check social media or send text messages.

The AAA study found that programming the navigation was the most distracting task, taking an average of 40 seconds for drivers to complete.

Harsher punishments

In the UK, harsher punishments for using a mobile phone behind the wheel seem to have scared drivers into leaving their phone alone. In 2017 the fine for using a cell phone behind the wheel doubled to £200 (R3200), as well as a loss of six points on a driver’s licence, which led to the number of offenders on UK roads dropping 39 percent in just one year.

As drivers we tend to believe that we’re proficient multitaskers and that, much like being able to walk and chew gum at the same time, we can easily get away with not focussing 100 percent of our attention on driving. But our miserable road-safety record proves otherwise, and most, if not all of us, are guilty of letting ourselves get distracted behind the wheel.

And, as the research shows, hands-free and voice-command features can give us a false sense of security about our safety.

Rather having the attitude of “I can handle a bit of distraction”, driving should be all about driving. Switching off our phones while behind the wheel sounds drastic and may give us a bad case of FOMO, but perhaps it’s a good starting point in the quest to make our roads a safer place. As the old road-safety adage goes: “Look, think, and stay alive.”

E-TOLLS

Gauteng motorists will be breathing a guarded sigh of relief at news that the hated e-toll system might finally be on its last legs.

Gauteng premier David Makhura in his State of the Province Address on Monday said e-tolls have failed and added to the cost of living for many motorists and public transport users.

Makhura admitted the contentious project was a mistake his administration had failed to resolve and it needs the intervention of the national government. He will engage President Cyril Ramaphosa to find a new and more equitable funding model.

With a compliance rate of only 29 percent among, despite Sanral’s numerous carrot-and-stick attempts to get motorists to pay, the writing’s been on the wall for some time. Sanral is losing millions of rand daily and won’t be able to catch up on collecting outstanding e-toll fees. It’s also not viable to take every non-paying motorist to court as the collection and litigation costs are simply too high versus the revenue generated by e-tolls.

Public resistance

The only good thing about e-tolls was its demonstration of the power of public resistance, as motorists railed against a scheme they felt was introduced without sufficient public participation. 

It’s time to declare e-tolls a failure, but the challenge lies in finding another funding method for the upkeep of Gauteng’s freeways.

Since government seems so stuck on the user-pays principle and refuses to use a fuel levy to fund the road upgrades, perhaps it can follow the lead of Slovakia, which charges toll fees without any expensive toll gate infrastructure. In that country, motorists who intend using freeways buy a token to stick on their vehicle’s windscreen. If they get caught driving on the freeway without the token, they get fined. Simple and straightforward.

Drive360

Follow Denis Droppa on Twitter @DenisDroppa