Western New York Teenagers Don’t Get The Brakes

23 May 2005

A pilot survey in a Western New York high school reveals some dangerous beliefs about driver safety but also shows that on some aspects the students do surprisingly well.

“We believe this initial survey was a great way not only to let us discover what topics the students need to cover in more detail, in order to better protect themselves when they are driving, but just as importantly it also got them really talking about a vital subject that sadly has been seen for generations as either boring or irrelevant,” said Eddie Wren, executive director of the Clarence-based, not-for-profit organization Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.

“Part of our work at DSA is aimed at creating a free talks program for over 140 high schools in the five counties of the entire Niagara Frontier Region,” he said.

“But importantly, the talks are not going to be based on variations of the same old, same old, because the other major function we perform at DSA is to maintain the world’s largest online ‘International Road Safety News’ service. And together with my own previous experience of working with young drivers, when I was a police officer specializing in this subject, this is allowing us to use global best practice as the bedrock of what we tell young people. In other words we talk about the most proven and safest techniques, and these sometimes contradict traditional but outdated beliefs.”

Those who have fought for years to highlight the dangers caused by drunk driving will be pleased to know that 73 percent of the students surveyed already knew that the blood-alcohol limit in New York State is 0.08% BAC, but even more impressive, said Wren, is the fact that when given options for what the safest rule of thumb should be for drinking and driving, over 88 percent of the students chose ‘no alcohol at all’ for drivers.

“The most worrying answers from the survey related to safe following distances and stopping distances,” said Wren.

“When we asked the students how far they would need to drive behind another vehicle, at 50mph on a wet road, in order to remain safe, a frightening 80 percent of them guessed at a distance that was one half or even less than one half of the correct answer.

“A major feature in this dangerous scenario is the fact that people still refer to car lengths as a method of judging distance, and that always was an inaccurate and unusable rule anyway,” he said.

“It is essential that young people are taught how to accurately use ‘the two-second, four-second, ten-second rule’ and when to apply each option. And they need to be shown how to understand speed in feet-per-second and how that relates to stopping distances in an emergency.”

Questions about signaling revealed another major flaw in the youngsters’ beliefs. But once again, Wren blamed incorrect information – this time from the state – rather than the youngsters themselves.

“The New York State Driver’s Manual tells us that we should signal 100 feet before an exit ramp or before a lane-change on a highway,” said Wren. “But who wrote that in the first place?

“A vehicle traveling at 65-70mph on a highway is doing 95-103 feet-per-second, so what is the possible use of giving a signal for exactly one second before a lane change? Isn’t that one of the things that makes many drivers angry? Other people giving inadequate signals? Yet New York is not alone in giving precisely that advice in its manual.

“At DSA, we tell the kids to let a signal flash a minimum of 4-6 times before starting the relevant maneuver. But they also need to be taught how to use their signals in relation to other risk-variables, too.”

According to Wren, the advice about the use of signals on highways is not the only flaw in certain state driver’s manuals.

“New York is also one of the states that tells drivers that if they skid in an automatic transmission vehicle they should ‘shift to neutral’ but frankly that advice is inexcusable.

“I’ve even discussed this with several state troopers,” said Wren. “And they were as stunned as I had been when I first saw this potentially deadly recommendation.

“Two important things come of this,” he said. “Firstly, at the most basic level, young people should be told that if ever they skid it is vital that they keep both hands on the wheel, and not start messing about trying to select neutral.

“Secondly, to many people’s surprise, research in various countries has shown that it is actually dangerous and counterproductive to take young people on a skid pad to teach them how to get out of a skid, because that is now known merely to reinforce a teenager’s natural attitude that he or she is immortal, or somehow different, and ‘it won’t happen to me!’ The research shows that young people who get skid pad training actually have more crashes afterwards and crashes of greater severity than their peers who don’t get the training. The important thing is to teach them how to avoid the danger of having a skid, not how to try to get out of one when a potentially lethal situation has already started. Skids are like serious crime: prevention is vastly better than cure.”

Several other dangerous, mistaken beliefs were revealed by the survey, but it was not all bad.

“Over 90 percent of the students realized that the drivers who generally cause the most danger, and are themselves in the most danger on the roads, are those under 25,” said Wren. “But even though the kids do grasp this fundamental situation, many of them are shocked when we explain the actual figures.”

Wren’s own background for this work is comprehensive and possibly unique.

He served for many years as a traffic patrol police officer in his native England, where a minimum of nine weeks’ training are needed just for the qualifications he obtained in police advanced driving and advanced patrol motorcycling. Unlike the situation in the USA, the vast majority of every police driver-training course in Britain is undertaken at high speeds among ordinary traffic on public roads, rather than on private circuits, in order that public safety may be taught in extreme detail and will always remain the paramount factor. While in the police, Wren was handpicked to give talks at senior schools, colleges and apprentice training centers about safe driving and safe motorcycling, and he gave several hundred such talks.

Following his police service, Wren became a Department of Transport Approved Driving Instructor and by invitation later became the managing director of a UK advanced driver training company that taught civilians how to use the same, remarkably safe driving standards as the traffic police.

Here in America, apart from his work for Drive and Stay Alive, Wren is also the vice president and director of policy for the newly established Advanced Drivers of America, Inc.

“We would greatly welcome invitations from any high schools, colleges or youth groups for us to do talks for their students,” said Wren. “But as we are determined to keep these talks free for the schools, we also urgently need financial support from businesses and the community in order to make this possible.”

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Notes for editors:

  1. The international credibility of Drive and Stay Alive, Inc., among road safety experts worldwide, may best be gauged by the fact that its website has:
    1. Won the “Best International Traffic Safety Website” award of the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals [CARSP] (June 2004)
    2. Resulted in DSA becoming the only organization in the America’s to be accepted as a signatory to the European Road Safety Charter (though this is specifically for DSA’s global contribution, not for any Euro-centric aspect)
    3. Been posted on the following organization’s own web ‘links’ pages:
  1. The NCSA (NHTSA)  www.nhtsa-tsis.net/trd/pages/Links.htm
  2. The United Nations ECE Road Safety website  www.unece.org/trans/roadsafe/rslin.html

iii.      The European Council of Ministers of Transport

  1. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
  2. Road safety organizations in at least 20 countries
    1. Wren was also a selected speaker at last year’s New York State Highway Safety Conference, in Binghamton, on the subject of international variations in road safety ideas and techniques.
  1. All American statistics quoted to the students in the survey are from the National Highways Transportation Safety Administration, NCSA and World Health Organization data.
  2. Other topics covered in the pilot survey included:
    1. The number of road fatalities each year, both in the USA and the world.
    2. Which type of roads in the USA are proportionately the most dangerous?
    3. Which type of vehicles in the USA are proportionately the most dangerous?
    4. What is a so-called “emergency brake” actually for and what type of emergencies might it be used for?
    5. The main causes of skidding.
    6. Reaction times for young drivers and older drivers.
    7. Driving with young passengers.
    8. What is the biggest single killer on America’s roads?
    9. How often to stop on long journeys in order to help prevent drowsy driving.
  3.  Other states that recommend signaling at just 100 feet include, among others, Alabama and Nebraska.
  4. All other media enquiries to Drive and Stay Alive (or Advanced Drivers of America) are similarly welcome.

Contact Details:

Contact:  Eddie Wren

Phone:    [++1] 716-632-5502