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The Best Safety Device--an Alert Driver

For most motorists, the morning commute is a half-hour of mental cruise control. About the only time they think about highway safety is in the frantic minutes before a license renewal test or during the monotonous hours of traffic school.

Arthur Anderson thinks about it all the time--and wants the rest of us to as well.

As director of the state Office of Traffic Safety, Anderson is charged with making the highways and byways of California safer for motorists. He does this by making the motorists safer.

Like the California Highway Patrol officer he once was, Anderson travels the state dispensing simple advice on how to drive safely and, more recently, how to avoid driving altogether.

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In the first chaotic weeks after the Northridge earthquake, Southern Californians seemed to listen. CHP officers noticed that people paid a little more attention to their driving, were a little more courteous, a little more cautious.

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But as the detours grow familiar and damaged roadways bounce back to life, many angels of the road are slipping back into their bedeviling habits.

They swerve.

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They weave.

They apply eyeliner using the rear-view mirror.

They eat.

According to Anderson, they do just about everything except what they should: Pay attention to where they are going and what is going on around them.

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A former Southern Californian who now lives in Sacramento, Anderson admires the skill with which millions of motorists maneuver the region’s labyrinth of freeways. While he acknowledges that “Southern Californians are some of the best drivers in the world,” they can still do a lot better.

Just under 300 people died in car accidents last year on the streets of Los Angeles alone. And that doesn’t count the freeways. Or roadways in smaller cities such as Burbank, Santa Monica or Huntington Park.

“The car is a means of travel and of pleasure,” Anderson said, “but it can be a lethal weapon if used improperly.”

While car companies tout their latest safety features--from automatic seat belts to air bags to anti-lock brakes--Anderson devotes energy to something less technical and less tangible, what he calls the “human dynamics” of driving.

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All the technology in the world cannot replace an attentive, careful and defensive driver, Anderson said. It sounds simplistic, like something straight out of a high schooler’s driver training manual.

But the numbers bear Anderson out.

* Roughly 90% of traffic fatalities are the result of human error. “People doing things other than driving contribute to an awful number of crashes,” Anderson said. He prefers “crash” to accident because, as he sees it, accidents cannot be avoided. Crashes can.

* Rubbernecking is the single greatest cause of unnecessary traffic congestion. Put another way, most Californians spend more time in traffic than they do on vacation. Anderson acknowledges that there is no way to change people’s morbid fascination with wrecks at the side of the road. But for everybody’s sake, they should just keep driving.

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* Tailgating is the leading cause of auto accidents--injuring about 11,000 Californians each year. Anderson suggests leaving a couple of car lengths between vehicles. It may not always be easy on a crowded freeway, but Anderson said it is always a wise policy.

* Drivers who change lanes frequently have more accidents than other drivers. And they don’t generally pick up any extra time. “I always end up passing them,” Anderson said.

The moral to Anderson’s story is to think--not only about the road ahead, but also about how to leave the road behind. The safest--and cheapest--way to work is to stay at home and commute on the electronic highway.

It reduces stress, increases productivity and helps clean up the air.

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According to Anderson:

* Telecommuters reduce their car travel by about 20%. Just a 10% decrease in car travel can substantially reduce freeway congestion. Commuter traffic alone accounts for nearly 30% of all the vehicle emissions belched into the air each day.

* If 5% of Los Angeles commuters worked from home one day a week, they would save 9.5 million gallons of gasoline each year and dump 94 million fewer tons of pollutants into the atmosphere.

* By telecommuting two days a week, the average Californian would save $165 each month. As it is, the typical Californian spends about $450 a month commuting to work.

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* Telecommuters are more productive than their office-bound colleagues. In Los Angeles County, overall productivity ratings of telecommuters increased 34% and absenteeism dropped 30%.

And on the electronic highway, there is no risk of getting pulled over.


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