Proposed: self-driving cars need to have drivers at the wheel

California is proposing that self-driving cars take their time in becoming self-driving:

The approach California’s Department of Motor Vehicles offered Wednesday in precedent-setting draft regulations is cautious, though it does allow that Californians could be behind the wheel of a self-driving car by 2017.

Among other safety-related requirements, the cars must have a steering wheel, and a licensed driver must be ready to take over if the machine fails…

Before the DMV grants that three-year permit, an independent certifier would need to verify a manufacturer’s safety assurances. Google and traditional automakers advocated for manufacturer self-certification of safety, the standard for other cars.Drivers would need special, manufacturer-provided training, then get a special certification on their licenses. If a car breaks the law, the driver would be responsible.

This is not too surprising given the newness of the technology as well as the potential safety hazards for others on the road. I don’t think any body of government wants to be responsible if the self-driving technology fails and someone is hurt or dies.

At the same time, this article introduces a new wrinkle to the development of this technology: if companies think these regulations are too onerous, why not develop the cars elsewhere? The suggestion here is that Texas might emerge as another option. Could it be better for consumers and innovation if two states work with different regulations and different companies?

The dangers of distracted walkers

Watch out for those texting pedestrians:

Distracted walking is most common among millennials aged 18 to 34, but women 55 and older are most likely to suffer serious injuries, including broken bones, according to a 2013 study in Accident Analysis & Prevention. Visits to emergency rooms for injuries involving distracted pedestrians on cellphones more than doubled between 2004 and 2010 and continues to grow. Among more than 1,000 people hospitalized after texting while walking, injuries included a shattered pelvis and injuries to the back, head and neck.

According to the National Safety Council, “the rise in cellphone-distracted walking injuries parallels the eightfold increase in cellphone use in the last 15 years.” Although the council found that 52 percent of distracted walking episodes occurred at home, the nationwide uptick in pedestrian deaths resulting from texting while walking has prompted the federal government to offer grants of $2 million to cities to combat distracted walking…

Alas, most people seem to think the problem involves other people. They’re not the ones who walk distracted. A new survey of some 6,000 people released last week by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, found that while 74 percent said that “other people” were usually or always walking while distracted, only 29 percent said the same about themselves. And only 46 percent considered the behavior “dangerous.”

I don’t do this much myself for two reasons. First, it slows my walking speed down. I’d rather get to my destination quicker and then text. Second, I generally don’t like impeding pedestrian traffic, whether the issue is texting, stopping for a conversation, gawking, etc.

Maybe the best solution – hinted at in the end of the article – is to be a defensive pedestrian in the same way that you are supposed to practice defensive driving. Be alert. Look around. Be aware of pedestrians and other possible obstacles. Have an alternative action in mind should others not respond appropriately.

Perhaps we should have a talking and texting lane for those who want to engage in this?

Explaining the drop in DUI arrests and crashes in the Chicago suburbs

The roads in the Chicago suburbs have been safer since 2007:

DUI arrest totals last year in 79 suburbs were about half what they were in 2007, despite only a small drop in police staffing. There were 6,955 arrests last year, compared to 12,166 in 2007, according to annual state-funded surveys compiled by the Schaumburg-based Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists.

Meanwhile, those same suburbs in six counties reported 1,555 crashes involving alcohol-impaired driving in 2007, according to Illinois Department of Transportation crash reports. By 2009, that number was down to 1,012 alcohol-impaired crashes, and it has hovered near that mark ever since, with 1,065 crashes in 2014, the reports show.

What is behind this?

“It’s the economy,” said Don Ramsell, a Wheaton-based attorney who specializes in drunken driving defenses. “It’s so obvious it’s ridiculous. Alcohol is a feature of people’s disposable income, and most people have a lot less of that these days…

Lake in the Hills Police Chief David Brey chalks up the decline in the number of arrests to “more and more people making a conscious effort to take a cab or have a designated driver.”…

Ramsell and AAIM Executive Director Rita Kreslin say lean budgets might have something to do with fewer DUI arrests. Both said police officers have told them they’re under less pressure to make DUI arrests because of the time and expense of following up in court.

Three different explanations: people have less money to spend on alcohol, drinkers have become smarter about using alternative transportation, and police departments may have been devoting less attention to this area. Getting this explanation right could be consequential as communities and police departments think about their budgets. In contrast, simply throwing out possible explanations (probably based on anecdotal evidence) may serve particular interests.

Still, good news overall for the safety of suburban roads. Now we can see whether the trend lasts and this might provide evidence for the explanations given above.

Fatalities due to vehicle-train collisions down dramatically

As the Chicago Tribune recently remembered a train-school bus collision that killed 7 in 1995, I looked at the statistics on vehicle-train crash fatalities. The numbers have dropped quite a bit in recent decades:

All Highway-Rail Incidents at Public and Private Crossings, 1981-2014
Source: Federal Railroad Administration
Year Collisions Fatalities Injuries
1981 9,461 728 3,293
1982 7,932 607 2,637
1983 7,305 575 2,623
1984 7,456 649 2,910
1985 7,073 582 2,687
1986 6,513 616 2,458
1987 6,426 624 2,429
1988 6,617 689 2,589
1989 6,526 801 2,868
1990 5,715 698 2,407
1991 5,388 608 2,094
1992 4,910 579 1,975
1993 4,892 626 1,837
1994 4,979 615 1,961
1995 4,633 579 1,894
1996 4,257 488 1,610
1997 3,865 461 1,540
1998 3,508 431 1,303
1999 3,489 402 1,396
2000 3,502 425 1,219
2001 3,237 421 1,157
2002 3,077 357 999
2003 2,977 334 1,035
2004 3,077 372 1,092
2005 3,057 359 1,051
2006 2,936 369 1,070
2007 2,776 339 1,062
2008 2,429 290 992
2009 1,934 249 743
2010 2,051 260 887
2011 2,061 250 1,045
2012 1,985 230 975
2013* 2,098 232 972
2014* 2,287 269 849

* Preliminary statistics

Based on the number of articles I’ve read plus personal experience driving at-grade crossings in the Chicago area (which has many cars driving over railroads tracks each day – in 2014, Illinois had the second most train-vehicle collisions in the country), there are several factors behind this decrease:

  1. Improved signage at many at-grade crossings.
  2. More barriers at crossings that make it difficult to go around gates (longer gate arms) or cross into other lanes (barriers in the middle of the road).
  3. Eliminating at-grade crossings with more underpasses and bridges. These can be expensive but they reduce crashes as well as save time for drivers who don’t have to wait for trains to pass.

Yet, these changes can’t control the actions of drivers as the Chicago Tribune article noted:

But experts say safety is a matter of attitude and awareness, not just signals and signs. That’s the message of groups like Operation Lifesaver and the DuPage Railroad Safety Council, an organization founded by Dr. Lanny Wilson after the death of his daughter at a rail crossing in 1994.

A 2013 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that as many as 4 in 10 Chicago-area pedestrians and bicyclists said they were at times willing to ignore flashing lights, ringing bells and gates at railroad crossings…

Barkan pointed to the Feb. 3 incident in Valhalla, N.Y., when a Metro-North Railroad commuter train struck an SUV at a grade crossing, killing six…

That crash could have been avoided, he said, if the driver had observed the “cardinal rule” of grade crossing safety: “Motorists must never enter a grade crossing until they have a clear exit path that equals or exceeds the length of their vehicle available on the other side of the tracks.”

Reaching zero traffic deaths on the roads also involves continuous improvement at such crossings.

Are McMansions bad for children?

I recently read how one family wanted to help their kids avoid McMansions:

No McMansions: Andrew Porter said that his family was drawn to Maywood by the idea of raising his two preschool-age daughters in a community full of homes that felt plucked from a bygone era.

“The historical designation really helps preserve the character of the neighborhood,” said Porter, a lawyer in his mid-30s who lives on 23rd Road. “You don’t have to deal with people tearing down the original structures and replacing them with huge McMansions on tiny lots.”

So here is one argument for how McMansions could be bad for kids: they get to experience older homes in a historic neighborhood. What might be other reasons?

  1. McMansions encourage consumption. They are big houses with room for lots of stuff.
  2. McMansions teach bad things about proper architecture and design.
  3. McMansions are often constructed in suburban neighborhoods where kids become dependent on cars, limiting their opportunities to explore, and have limited interactions with neighbors.
  4. McMansions are poorly constructed (not built to last, cheaper materials) and this could hurt kids in the long run.
  5. Fires work differently in McMansions.
  6. If the oft-criticized teardown McMansion is located on a small lot, there is little room for kids to play.

I imagine some McMansion critics could add to this list. Of course, the owners of such homes might argue McMansion could also be positive for kids – how many parents would move into a home that could hurt their children? I’m actually a little surprised neither side makes this case more strongly; claiming that their actions are best for their children or future generations is a common tactic of opinionated people in the United States.

I survived the new Route 59 diamond interchange

I went out of my way a bit this weekend in order to try the recently opened diamond interchange at I-88 and Route 59. There wasn’t much traffic but I found it pretty easy to navigate and it looks like it will help move traffic onto I-88 more quickly. Here were some reactions from drivers earlier in the week:

“Am I doing this right?” one Daily Herald reporter wondered while test driving the new route. There was bemusement on the faces of some other drivers, but Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell reported no major problems Monday afternoon.

“We have observed folks maybe driving a little tentatively, a little slowly, perhaps because they’re curious, but everything is going according to plan,” Tridgell said.

While it may take drivers some time to adjust – though there are plenty of signs and traffic light indicators – the improved safety and traffic flow of such interchanges means more are coming:

A similar interchange will be completed at the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) and Elmhurst Road near Des Plaines in 2016.

The Illinois Department of Transportation opened another diamond interchange at I-57 and Route 13 this summer in Marion, in southern Illinois.

Given that more cars can now move through this interchange, does that mean traffic will increase? Generally, if you add lanes to a highway, drivers see that as a feature and this can lead to more congestion. (Conversely, road diets that limit lanes can reduce traffic.) This is already a busy area along I-88 with numerous crowded interchanges both east and west. Perhaps safety through a reduction of accidents in busy intersections is the number one goal here…

This particular type of interchange is relatively new – see a 2010 post here.

Two questions regarding the “Zen commute”

I’ve seen numerous stories in recent months about creating more calm, Zen commutes. Here is a recent example:

“We can say, ‘OK, I’m going to be in the car for an hour,'” said actor Jeff Kober, who teaches meditation in Los Angeles. “‘Now, what can I do to improve my quality of life during that hour?'”

Resist the urge to relinquish that hour to an inner monologue of traffic complaints, work worries and side-eye looks at coughing riders. Instead, treat it as a time when you can incorporate more contentment, either by getting more meditative or taking measures to create your own oasis.

“Because we’re essentially captive, why not make it into something really productive?” said Maria Gonzalez, who teaches the benefits of mindfulness in business as founder of Argonauta Strategic Alliances Consulting in Toronto…

Experts say, however, that it is possible to change how you embark on, endure and exit your commute.

Even as these practices might limit the negative health consequences of commuting, there are two unanswered questions that came to my mind:

  1. Are mindful drivers safer drivers? There have been major campaigns in recent years to limit the distractions of drivers. If drivers are mindful or being Zen about things other than driving, isn’t this a problem? We still want drivers to focus on the driving, whether stressed while doing it or not.
  2. The bigger issue, of course, is why so many people have long commutes where they are so stressed and harmed. The average American commute is around 26 minutes (and supercommuters are limited) due to a variety of factors: Americans like cars, residences are spread out, our government promoted highways over mass transit, and so on. If we really wanted to deal with the problems of commuting, the Zen part seems like a band-aid on an issue of having people relatively far from their workplaces. Or, maybe this provides more reasons to promote telecommuting and working from home.