Monday, July 27, 2009

Steering Wheel Use Found To Be Associated With Traffic Accidents

by Benjo

I'm posting this article for the benefit of any of you who might be drivers. These days, people will use their steering wheel without a second thought, leaving neither hand free. Be careful out there.

Distractions from steering wheels cause tens of thousands of car accidents each year, according to a new study by statisticians Richard French and Ainsley Waring. Their research, which will be published in next month's issue of Science, finds that steering wheels are a factor in 95 percent or more of traffic accidents.

The study found that hands-free steering wheel use is not any better, as drivers may become complacent, with the expectation that their car will steer itself.

Despite the study's findings, many have continued to use their steering wheel, angering public-safety advocates. “It is not fair to the other drivers on the road for you to put their lives at risk so you can have a few seconds of convenience,” said highway patroller Mike Cary. “You need to use your steering wheel? Fine. But pull over before you do it.”

However, any choice regarding steering-wheel use is likely to leave the public's hands soon—literally. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has scheduled hearings on a steering-wheel ban for just after the August recess, and are expected to pass legislation by the end of the year.

But some public-safety advocates complain that a steering-wheel ban does not go far enough. “Engines, ignitions, gas pedals, and drivers' seats provide just as much of a hazard to drivers,” said Terry McCourt, of Car Safety Now. “Not until these features are removed is a car really safe.”

The study is posed to reopen other long-closed issues of car safety as well. An analysis published in the Economist this week shows that nearly all deaths previously assumed to be alcohol-related appear also to have included a steering wheel, raising questions about whether it was the alcohol or the steering wheel that caused the accident.

Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting its conclusions, the study continues to face some skepticism. "I've been driving for thirty years and using a steering wheel that whole time," said Florette Watkins, 42. "It sure doesn't seem dangerous to me." However, French, one of the co-authors of the study, attributed Watkins's statement to a common logical fallacy. "Causation does not imply correlation," French pointed out.

French and Waring are best-known for their landmark 2006 study that proved that the administration of last rites was the leading cause of death in Catholics. Waring is currently working on the follow-up to his 2008 bestseller, Those Who Breathe, Die.

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