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Minnesota Moves Forward and Backward on Road Safety

September 24, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Traffic accidents are a $164 billion-a-year drain on the U.S. economy, equal to more than $1,000 per person, according to a 2008 AAA report. Basically, there are three ways to reduce all this needless cost, suffering and 37,000 annual fatalities - better cars, better roads and, yes, better drivers.

Advances are afoot to improve all three. Unfortunately, sometimes it's one step forward and two steps back.

For example, Minnesota and many other states ban texting while driving, shown in a recent study to increase crash risk by a factor of 23. But most of these states, Minnesota included, also update drivers on road conditions via Twitter, the Associated Press reports, in effect inviting them to take eyes off the road and onto the DOT's traffic Tweet.

While bridge and highway design is constantly improving, Minnesota also has been going backwards on road safety, plunging in national rankings of highway pavement quality. After years of placing no worse than No. 13 among the states in fewest road miles in poor or mediocre shape, we fell to 27th in 2007, with 16 percent of the system not up to snuff. This is worrisome because a recent study by the Pacific Institute for Evaluation and Research found that more than half of U.S. traffic fatalities are related to deficient roadway condition or design.

Some of the latest gains are being made in automobile safety features. Moving beyond seat belts and air bags, carmakers are seeking to eliminate human error with crash-averting brake systems and drowsy driver alarms. Volvo lists no fewer than 32 safety features for its XC60 crossover, including one that senses lane-weaving and flashes a coffee cup icon on the dashboard with the advice "Time for a break."

But choosing a safe vehicle is more complicated than finding one with the most impact protection and computerized bells and whistles. Even the old rule of thumb that the tallest, heaviest SUV is best in a collision doesn't necessarily hold water.

The 4,700-lb. Hummer H3, for example, made this year's Forbes Magazine list of the most dangerous cars based on crash-test and rollover data from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The H3 was weak in stability and rear-end crash protection. Meanwhile, the 1,800-lb. Smart Fortwo, the smallest car on American roads, did fine on both safety measures.

"It didn't come close to making our list," Forbes said. "But that doesn't make the car the safest or best for a large or tall person." But neither is a huge, well-stabilized SUV a smart buy for a person too short to reach the pedals easily or to see out the rear window, AAA told Forbes.

And more important than a heavy car in a crash is a strong one, which can be achieved with lightweight composite materials that improve fuel efficiency.

NHTSA also gives high marks to vehicles with electronic stability control, which it says reduces single-car crashes by 26 percent, passenger rollovers by 64 percent and 85 percent of rollovers in single-SUV accidents.

This kind of protection comes at a price. With its lane departure warning and collision mitigation systems, the $47,000 Acura RL scored well on the Forbes rankings. But safety experts say it's unclear how much most of this exotic technology really prevents or mitigates accidents.

After all, the best safety equipment in a car is still pretty simple and cost-free - a sober, attentive, belted-in motorist who practices alert, courteous, defensive driving. Do it in a subcompact or a maxi-SUV, on excellent roads or bad, and your chances of getting home safely will be very good.

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