Why not sue Jay Leno and Nokia?

Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) released some interesting results from a major research project on automobile driver behavior and crash factors. The reports themselves – two of them, totaling about 640 pages – are hardly fascinating reading, but the conclusions and the approach used for the study are intriguing.

First, the methodology. Believe it or not, those wacky Virginia Tech researchers observed real drivers as they drove. The study – formally called The 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study – tracked the behavior of the drivers of 100 vehicles equipped with video and sensor devices for more than a year. The vehicles logged nearly 2 million miles, yielding 42,300 hours of data. The 241 drivers were involved in 82 crashes, 761 near crashes and 8,295 critical incidents.

In this age of sophisticated sampling, pivot tables and regression analyses, where do these amateurs get off studying real people? They call that science? They should have taken a tiny sample of hastily drafted police reports based heavily on hearsay evidence and extrapolated that into grand, blanket generalizations about accident causes. Well, at least these researchers still write like academics.

In any event, the study found that nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event. The principal causes of driver inattention are drowsiness and distracting activities, such as cell phone use. Researchers concluded that drowsiness increases a driver’s risk of a crash or near-crash by at least a factor of four and that driver distraction increases the risk by a factor of three.

Based on the claims of anti-truck activists and tabloid TV, you would think that truck drivers – and only truck drivers – were always nodding off. That’s not exactly what VTTI found. Driving while drowsy was found to be a contributing factor for 22 to 24 percent of the crashes and near-crashes logged in the study.

Thomas Dingus, VTTI’s director, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that the percentage of crashes caused by drowsiness in its study probably outpaces that of long-haul truckers. That squares with the recent report on truck crashes issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and NHTSA that identified driver fatigue as being an “associated factor” twice as often for the car driver in a truck-car crash as for the truck driver.

Are you really surprised? Think of the worst commercial driver you have ever fired. There probably are millions of automobile drivers worse than him. Study after study has shown the automobile driver principally at fault in most truck-car crashes. No, the trucking industry isn’t blameless. And, yes, trucks weigh more and tend to do some real damage when they collide with cars. But it’s not like the industry has a choice. Unlike airliners and trains, heavy trucks and buses must share their routes with many other parties. As congestion worsens, trucking activity grows and jury verdicts rise, something has to give. Unless all highway users accept moral and legal responsibility for safe roads, insurance costs and increased exposure will drive even safe motor carriers out of business.

What’s really needed is a grand compromise at the federal level. For example, if trucking’s critics truly are interested in improved safety, then the trucking industry might give them onboard recorders, speed limiters, collision avoidance systems and a host of other technologies aimed a improving safety. In return, trucking might get severe restrictions on punitive damages in lawsuits, productivity concessions and increased monitoring of automobile drivers to level the playing field.

Even if you liked this deal – and you might not – don’t hold your breath. To implement it, Congress would have to override two of the nation’s most powerful forces – the trial attorney lobby and the American car driver. If you think that will happen, you’re dreaming.