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Shining a Light on Defensive Driving

It's Simple, Really: You Pay Attention


When the lights went out in Chico, Calif., last week, H. Thomas Ganz quickly pulled to the side of the road, parked and started watching.

Ganz had more than passing curiosity. The former California Highway Patrol officer now makes his living analyzing crash scenes as an accident reconstruction specialist.

And with the traffic signals out at three consecutive intersections on State Route 32, thanks to California's new era of rolling blackouts, Ganz figured it was just a matter of time until he'd have some new observations for his notebook.

In 1999, the last year for which figures have been compiled, there was a traffic accident reported every 65 seconds somewhere in California, according to CHP records. That's nearly half a million accidents.

In fact, Southern California has two of the most dangerous intersections in the nation: Brookhurst Street and Adams Avenue in Huntington Beach and Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards in Beverly Hills. State Farm Insurance estimates that each was the site of more than 230 accidents in 1998.

If 2001 is the year of rolling blackouts, statewide accident figures could climb. Experts such as Ganz say there is no better time to shift into defensive-driving mode.

Technology promises to make defensive driving easier as features such as collision-warning systems, under study by most vehicle manufacturers, become available. But until your car or truck gets smarter, just knowing what the most common types of accidents are can help you adjust your driving habits to avoid them.

Most urban traffic accidents fall into five categories, according to a study conducted by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 1995.

Front- and side-impact crashes caused by drivers who run red lights or violate traffic controls such as stop signs lead the list. Then come rear-end collisions--usually caused by following too closely--and running off the road and striking an object, a type of accident that also is the leading cause of vehicle rollovers. The fourth-most frequent type of accident, the institute reported, are those caused when a motorist suddenly swerves into an adjacent lane. Fifth on the list are accidents resulting from improper left turns.

In California, according to the CHP's 1999 tally, the most common causes of collisions are excessive speed, right-of-way violations, improper turning (a broad category that includes swerving into another lane), signal and stop sign violations, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Drivers' lack of attention is to blame for many if not most accidents. Indeed, Ganz said he saw three near-misses in the first minute after the blackout in Chico last week because drivers "at first were just going on through the lights" as if they were green in all directions.

But after a few minutes, motorists had become aware of the darkened signals and reacted properly, as if they were at a four-way intersection with stop signs.

As Ganz was observing the scene unfold up north, the same scenario was being played out in Southern California, with rolling blackouts affecting a number of traffic signals and contributing to the day's accident tally.

The lesson? To avoid a crash at an inoperable light, drivers must react quickly. So concentrate on looking farther ahead than you typically do.

"People watch brake lights more than traffic lights," Ganz said. Ideally, drivers should be aware of what's going on six vehicles or more ahead of them, meaning they should be looking past the tail end of the car immediately in front.

"A lot of drivers don't look forward enough," agreed Luis Mendoza, a spokesman for the CHP's Southern Division. But paying attention is more important than ever, he said. It can provide more time to react should a traffic light suddenly dim.

Other rules for safer driving are equally simple--and often ignored.

To avoid running red lights when the power is working, be aware that, although signal timing varies from community to community, a typical yellow "caution" light is on for 2.5 to 3 seconds between the green and red lights. That's not a lot of time to make it though an intersection. So, in general, Ganz said, it's better to stop, even if you risk being hit from the rear, than to race through the yellow light and be "T-boned" by a car speeding into the intersection from the left or right.

The best way to reduce the risk of being the cause of a rear-end collision is to keep your eyes on the road and maintain proper spacing between cars. That seems all too obvious, but Ganz said most people who rear-end other vehicles are either following too closely or are briefly inattentive as they look down to fiddle with the car radio or turn to admonish a child.

It might take only two seconds to look from the road to the radio, but at 30 miles an hour, a vehicle travels five or six car lengths in that time.

Run-off-the-road crashes are usually single-car accidents, most often caused by inattention, sleepiness, excessive speed or a combination, Ganz said.

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