Steps can reduce driving accidents

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According to Tom Vanderbilt in his book "Traffic," driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do. It is a skill that consists of at least 1,500 "sub-skills."

He makes reference to a survey of one stretch of road in Maryland found a piece of information was presented every two feet, which at 30 mph, the study reasoned, meant the driver was exposed to 1,320 "items of information," or roughly 440 words per minute.

This reality certainly helps explain why we had 981 traffic collisions in Walla Walla last year. When you add the other distractions that drivers engage in, (texting on their Blackberry, cell-phone conversations and the list goes on) it is no wonder bad things happen.

Driving is not only incredibly complicated it is one activity that a person can, without intending to, harm another and find himself in serious trouble legally, financially, psychologically and physically simply by not pay sufficient attention to the task at hand. Lives are ruined when one fails to fully appreciate this one fact.

So, can we dramatically reduce the "981" collision total, maybe even cut it in half? I believe we can, by improving our behavior in four basic areas of driving:

Allow a four second separation between you and the car you are following. I am continually amazed at how many drivers will pull up to within one or two car lengths of the car in front of them for no apparent reason. They can be the only two cars within several blocks and still close that safety cushion. Then, with the least bit of distraction, or the person in front suddenly stops, bad things can happen, and it was all preventable.

Follow the speed limit. Driving just a few miles over the speed limit reduces reaction time and increases the severity of collisions. We need to ask ourselves why, if we can travel from one side of town to the other in 12 minutes, do we not plan ahead and give ourselves time to arrive safely?

Pay attention. Much has been communicated about driving while distracted. Most drivers believe they are above average and are able to multitask. If that were the case, we wouldn't have so many collisions due to driver inattention.

Be a good role model. Most new parents are willing to modify habits in many areas of their lives when they feel that extra responsibility of setting the example. One very important area that is too often overlooked is setting a proper example when driving.

All sorts of temptations arise when we are late for an appointment, when we are cut off by another driver, or we feel the need to chat on our cell phone.

The time to explain how important it is to follow driving rules is not when our teenager gets a learning permit. It starts when our children are old enough to comprehend how we drive, but it is never too late to start.

Our driving is improving in Walla Walla. Collisions dropped by 12 percent from 2007 to 2008. Injuries dropped 37 percent. This is certainly good news, but we should not be satisfied.

This is an important issue in our community. Last year, traffic collisions in Walla Walla cost each household an average of $1,500, not to mention personal suffering and inconvenience. Important progress can be made when we are dissatisfied with where we are at on this issue and strive to improve our driving in these four basic areas. We can achieve a dramatic change for the better.

Capt. Gary Bainter is Patrol Division commander for the Walla Walla Police Department. He can be reached at gbainter@ci.walla-walla.wa.us or 524-4372.

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