Controlling your risk by Bob Carruth

As Risk Control Manager for the NCACC, Bob Carruth manages the operation of the Risk Control Team for the Risk Management Pools. The team assists members with development of safety policies and programs and identification of liability exposures and controls. Carruth is a Certified Safety Professional and is certified as an Associate – Risk Management.  For archives of this column click here

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Jan 29

Speed and Distractions – a Recipe for Disaster

Posted on January 29, 2013 at 3:08 PM by Chris Baucom

Okay, by now the holiday decorations have been stowed away, the last of the cookies devoured, the fitness resolutions have been broken, and things have pretty much returned to normal – right?  This also includes work.  The turmoil that is often associated with the holidays gives way to the mundaneness of January. 

As we all get back into our routines, it is a good time to establish new habits that will make sure we will all make it to the next holiday season safely.

There is one task that is performed on a daily basis by county employees that also carries a high level of risk for the employee – operating a motor vehicle.  To whatever degree you are operating a vehicle-continuously, as seen with law enforcement and transportation functions; frequently, as seen with case workers, building inspectors, or EMS; or intermittently, as seen with the administrative or office based staff.- you must practice safety. 

Volumes have been written, and entire businesses have been built on improving the safety of the driving experience and consequently reducing the number of injuries and death due to auto crashes.    A major emphasis is placed on the use of passenger restraints and airbags for reduction of injury and saving lives, which they should be – but aren’t the fact that they are deployed actually a sign the ultimate goal – to prevent the crash – was not met?  Would it not be better if actions could be taken earlier in the sequence that would prevent the crash to begin with?  

The driving environment constantly changes while you drive.  When driving at 60 mph, you are 88 feet closer to your destination every second that you drive.  This means that practically EVERYTHING could change about the driving environment within just a few seconds. The surface on which the car is moving, the overall environmental conditions, traffic density, traffic flow, and other drivers all will be different in some way just moments in the future.  For most drivers, these changes pretty much go by unnoticed, and we reach our destination without incident. 

At other times, however, the deer runs out in front of my car.  The slow driver in front of me suddenly stops.  The driver of the SUV pulls out of the side street right into my path.  Even though I have my lights and siren on, warning everyone I am coming through, someone still pulls out in front of me, or ignores the warning lights.  Hopefully, only my day changed and the vehicle I was driving was merely damaged – but my life could also be changed - forever.

Basically speaking, a vehicle crash occurs because the vehicle was not able to stop in time or take evasive action to avoid the crash.  A typical private passenger vehicle weighs about 3000 pounds, and when moving at 60 miles per hour, takes about 300 feet, or the length of a football field, to actually stop.  This is based on a dry and level solid surface.  Change the operating environment – increase traffic, change the road surface, or environmental conditions, and the distance needed to stop increases dramatically.  

Included in the stopping distance is the amount of time it takes to react to a situation in front of my vehicle, and take the necessary action. The average reaction time for a human being from the time of perceiving a threat until taking action to stop, takes about 1.5 seconds, or 132 of the 300 feet.  The critical thing to note about the reaction time – anything that happens within the 132 feet “pocket” in front of the vehicle will likely lead to a collision or crash, as you won’t have time to take action to avoid it.  

So – if it takes 300 feet, or basically a football field, for a passenger vehicle to come to a complete stop from 60 mph, and almost half of that distance is just waiting on the reaction of the driver to the event, then a basic principle can be employed by every driver, that would have the effect of eliminating many of the debilitating crashes seen in our state each year – Slow Down, and Pay Attention.

Higher vehicle speeds than the conditions will allow, combined with being distracted from the driving task is a deadly combination.  Increase your speed, even 10 miles per hour, and the distance to stop goes up exponentially.  Add talking, texting, or eating to that and your reaction time is slowed (and distance covered increases).    The converse is true as well – reduce your speed based on the ever changing conditions around you, and maintain a high level of attention to the driving task, and that stopping distance decreases, and the distance you will cover while reacting will also decrease. 

This principle is at work all around us, and you may not even notice it – in most downtown areas, even in the smallest of towns, the speed limit is set at 20 mph.  The interstate highways have limited access points, all of which are merges, and wide shoulders for emergency use. In the former situation, there are many distractions present as well as increased congestion, which make higher speeds impractical, and in the latter, certain safety features exist that allow for higher operating speeds.  Finally, a late arrival to the NC highway culture –the much debated traffic circle, provides a way to force all traffic to slow down at an intersection.  

So this year, as you strive to create new habits, and improve the safety culture of your organization or team, remember – Slow Down, and Pay Attention.  Finally, if you would like further assistance on helping your staff to drive safer, or perform their other duties safer, please feel free to contact our risk control staff at the NCACC.