Talking driving safety with U of M
As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, motorists across the country are preparing to navigate busy roads at a time of year when there are typically more injury crashes than any other. Last year in Minnesota alone, roadway crashes resulted in 488 lives lost, 1,723 serious injuries and over 100,000 minor injury or property damage-only crashes. The economic losses of these crashes reached just over $2 billion, and the cost to Minnesotan families far outweighs any dollar amount.
Nichole Morris, Ph.D., research associate professor and director of the HumanFIRST Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, addresses common questions about driving safety and offers advice on how to stay safe on the road both around the holidays and throughout the year.
Q: What are the most common unsafe driving behaviors?
Morris: Last year, speed was the top contributing factor to death on our roads, with 35% of all fatalities involving unsafe speeds. Traveling at the speed limit is one of the best practices drivers can follow to increase the margin of error for themselves and others around them.
While the vast majority of Minnesotans tend to wear their seatbelt, there are still far too many that are not buckling up during every drive or in every seat. Additionally, the summer months bring a big increase in motorcycling and failing to wear a helmet increases risk of life-changing injury or death following a crash. Over the past five years, the month of July has had the greatest number of unrestrained or not-helmeted drivers and vehicle occupants killed on our roads.
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is still far too pervasive, with dangerous peaks near holidays. In 2021, July saw the highest number of drivers in Minnesota charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI), with 381 DWIs on the Fourth of July alone, contributing to the holiday often being associated with the greatest number of roadway fatalities and injuries in Minnesota.
Finally, distracted driving is a leading contributor to crashes of all kinds. Distracted driving is commonly thought of as texting or talking on phones, but it also includes a wide variety of non-driving behaviors such as eating, talking to passengers or simply being lost in thought.
Q: What are the impacts of unsafe driving?
Morris: Unsafe driving brings harm by making people feel less safe to walk and bike and, overall, leaves us with less livable and less healthy communities for people to move freely about. At its worst, unsafe driving risks death or life-changing injury for the driver and others.
Drivers often feel overly confident in their own ability to drive and can disregard the role that speeding or other risky driving behaviors may have in their overall driving performance. In my team’s field research, we often find a link between a driver’s speed and the likelihood that they stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Pedestrians struck by a vehicle traveling at 23 mph have a 10% chance of death, but these risks grow to 25% at 32 mph, 50% at 42 mph, and 75% at 50 mph. We often use the phrase “25 alive” because it is one of the easiest ways to remind yourself to drive slowly through neighborhoods and near crosswalks.
Q: How do you recommend that people implement safer driving practices in their daily lives?
Morris: Giving yourself plenty of time to reach your destination is one of the best practices to introduce into your daily driving habits. Time pressures are often a main factor in people’s decisions to speed, run traffic signals or stop signs and become impatient or aggressive with other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. When you give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination, it makes driving safer and more relaxing.
Another component of following everyday safe driving practices includes making a plan for alcohol consumption. Planning ahead to take a cab or rideshare to and from a destination where you plan to consume alcohol takes the guesswork out of how much alcohol consumption is safe for driving. While paying for a ride might seem expensive, it is a bargain compared to the immense costs of a DWI, crash, injury, loss of employment or worse.
It’s important to talk with your friends and family about safe driving habits, too. People are strongly influenced by the social norms that surround them. Sharing safety expectations with your loved ones and surrounding yourself with others that practice safe driving practices will help promote good intentions to become good everyday practices.
Q: When other cars on the road are behaving unsafely, how should drivers respond?
Morris: The best thing you can do when you encounter an unsafe driver on the road is to increase your following distance to put more space between your vehicle and theirs. This gives you more time to safely break and avoid a collision with the other driver if they suddenly stop or change lanes. Drivers should resist the urge to speed up to “get away” from dangerous drivers. Staying vigilant by resisting distractions, following the speed limit and keeping safe following distances is the best way to protect yourself against dangerous drivers.
Q: How is the work you — and the HumanFIRST Laboratory — are doing advancing research on driving safety?
Morris: My research team and I work to improve how people interact with transportation systems through human-centered design principles. One of our biggest contributions has been to help improve crash data collection quality and completeness. By creating intuitive, user-friendly crash data entry interfaces, we now have a better ability to capture the factors that lead to crashes and prevent them in the future. The practices in Minnesota for crash reporting have now become the national standard for all states to follow. My team is hard at work in other ways to support roadway safety through improved in-vehicle technologies or intersection designs. We have been equipping snowplows with driver assist systems to help our plow drivers continue to clear roads in white out conditions. Our team is often in the field measuring driver behavior to better understand which engineering solutions result in safer driving behaviors, such as safer vehicle movements through intersections, improved driver compliance with road laws and better interactions between drivers and autonomous vehicles.
Nichole Morris is a research associate professor and the director of the HumanFIRST Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, a research scholar at the Center for Transportation Studies and a graduate faculty member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics program at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Morris's research examines human-systems interactions and leverages user-centered design principles to reduce serious injuries and fatalities.
About the Center for Transportation Studies
The Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota is a national leader in transportation research, engagement and education. CTS collaborates with public-sector, industry and academic partners to shape transportation systems that are sustainable, serve the needs of all users, support a strong economy and improve our collective quality of life. Learn more at cts.umn.edu.
About the College of Science and Engineering
The University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering brings together the University’s programs in engineering, physical sciences, mathematics and computer science into one college. The college is ranked among the top academic programs in the country and includes 12 academic departments offering a wide range of degree programs at the baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral levels. Learn more at cse.umn.edu.
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