We've spilled a lot of virtual ink on the topic of distracted driving. It's been a problem for decades, of course -- since the historic moment two people first piled into a Benz Patent-Motorwagen and began arguing over directions.
The problem was made worse (at least in America) by drive-through windows at fast-food joints, which provide distractions like very hot coffee and lukewarm Big Macs. And let's not forget the terrifying phenomenon of folks putting on mascara at 60 mph.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has vowed to put an end to distracted driving, spurred on by the dangers associated with mobile phones. But a new study shows that there's a far bigger roadway hazard than texting and driving -- namely, forgetting to use a turn signal.
The news comes from the Society of Automotive Engineers, which unveiled some startling statistics at April's 2012 SAE World Congress. According to the SAE, Americans forget to use their turn signals an astonishing 2 billion times each day, or roughly 750 billion times per year.
Worse, the SAE says those figures translate into a mind-boggling 2 million accidents in the U.S.
If that's is correct, and if the U.S. sees 10 or 11 million accidents per year (according to this PDF from the U.S. Census bureau), that means about one in every five accidents can be blamed on a forgotten turn signal.
For reference, distracted driving causes a "mere" 950,000 accidents annually, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The solution: smart turn signals
The SAE arrived at its findings by observing 12,000 vehicles in traffic. They found that drivers skipped using their signal lights during 48% of lane-changes and in 25% of full turns.
To combat problems associated with such forgotten turn signals, the SAE suggests the widespread implementation of smart turn signals. According to an SAE press release, such devices "use vehicle sensors and computer control to not only shut off the turn signal appropriately and accurately under every conceivable driving situation, but also assists the driver to assure that the turn signal is used regularly".
In other words, these systems pester drivers when they forget to use their turn signals, and they deactivate them off when turns and lane-changes have been made.
The SAE notes that this is not some far-off technology, but one that could fairly easily be implemented now. The data used by smart turn signals is the same data used for stability control systems, which are now standard on all new cars. So, the cost to the consumer would be minimal at best -- in fact, the SAE claims that switching to smart turn signals would actually save drivers money, because it would allow automakers to get rid of the costly, weighty trip mechanism that's been deactivating turn signals since 1940.
Which is great. We love technological progress, we love lighter cars, and we love the thought of saving cash. And of course, we love the thought of safer roads.
But we're curious about a couple of things:
1. Is turn-signal neglect more likely to lead to fatal accidents than distracted driving -- especially, say, texting and driving? In 2010, distracted driving was linked to 3,092 traffic fatalities in the U.S., or 9.4% of all traffic deaths. Are there comparable stats on turn-signal neglect? In other words, could forgetting a turn signal be even more deadly than texting and driving? Or possibly less deadly?
2. How many incidents of turn-signal neglect are actually the product of distracted driving (e.g. someone chatting on the phone who forgets to signal)? Our completely unscientific, intra-office survey suggests that the overlap might be high.
But what about you? Do you use your turn signal religiously? Does it annoy you when others don't? Are there times when it's okay to ditch using a turn signal? And would you be interested in having a smart turn signal on your next new car? Drop us a line, or leave a note in the comments below.