The 250 transportation safety professionals who attended the 2013 Traffic Safety Conference in Fort Worth were told that Texas fatalities rose last year for the first time since 2005. But they were also given a behind-the-scenes look into connected vehicle technology that could drastically improve safety by eliminating a majority of car crashes in the future. Held June 3-5, the conference, entitled Different Paths, One Destination, was hosted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI).
“Traffic safety is a complex and multifaceted problem, and we all have a different perspective on it,” said Robert Wunderlich, director of TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety, at the opening session. His audience included representatives from law enforcement, traffic safety research, education and numerous other groups. “What we want to do here is bring those perspectives together in a single forum to create the relationships we need to solve that problem.”
Progress But Still Problems
Following a steady decline in Texas fatalities from 2005 to 2011, deaths rose 12-percent based on preliminary 2012 figures, according to Georgia Chakiris, Region 6 administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In her speech at the conference, she highlighted some of the human behavior issues that contribute to fatalities: unrestrained drivers, distracted driving and impaired driving.
“With nearly one third of the traffic deaths in this country involving a driver at or above .08 percent blood alcohol content, it’s critically important that we reduce this number,” Chakiris said.
Safety belt use rose to 94 percent in Texas last year, but 45 percent of fatal crash victims were not wearing them, according to John Barton, deputy executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). “So, we do have more work to do,” Barton said, describing how important it is to reach TxDOT’s goal of achieving no fatalities, an initiative called Mission Zero. And regarding motorcycle safety, Barton said “Texas is in the top five in fatalities [in the country] related to motorcycles. We have a helmet issue that we need to educate the public on.”
Barton touched upon various other traffic dangers, including those in work zones. He told the crowd that Texas has 1,000 active work zones at any given time. “We have a lot of exposure and opportunities for bad things to happen.”
The Traffic Safety Conference also examined safety problems associated with the oil boom, especially on rural roads built decades ago and not designed for the traffic volume they are now shouldering. “Those areas are seeing an incredible amount of crashes,” TxDOT Traffic Operations Division Director Carol Rawson told members of a breakout session called Unintended Consequences of the Texas Energy Boom. “In the Eagle Ford Shale, there’s been a 40 percent increase in fatalities. In the Permian Basin in 2012, there was a 27 percent increase in fatalities. We know that we have a challenge.”
Rawson went on to describe TxDOT’s safety campaign aimed at the oil boom areas across the state. The Be Safe, Drive Smart campaign included community visits, focus group meetings, specialized public service announcements, radio jingles and signs affixed to convenience store windows urging oil field workers and residents to wear their seatbelts, never drive drowsy, pass carefully and exercise other safety strategies.
Safety Is the Future
Numerous breakout sessions spanned the two-day conference and examined topics including driver education, child passenger safety, traffic incident management and new research in distracted driving. Some of the most popular sessions were those that discussed the future of transportation safety as a result of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies. Speakers discussed how new technologies could impact the way attendees do their jobs in the near future.
“Six major manufacturers are moving toward the self-driven, autonomous vehicle in 10 years, with all the safety attributes that come with it,” John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, told attendees at the conference luncheon. “The momentum is propelling us toward that day [when] you will be able to sit back and read the newspaper [while driving].” With cars sharing information about upcoming dangers and then responding automatically, Horsley repeated predictions that 80-percent of non-impaired crashes could be eliminated.
Other connected vehicle speakers called the emerging technology “transformational,” but urged caution.
“Ninety-nine percent of driving is simpler than [the game of] checkers,” Steven Dellenback of the Southwest Research Institute said. “The one percent of driving that will get you killed is more complicated than chess. Are you willing to bet your life that a software guy thought out all of the possibilities of an unmanned car?”