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Distracted drivers, forgiving highways: professors analyze the culture of the road

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Earlier this month, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal became the latest governor to enforce a law that prohibits drivers from holding a cellphone in their hands or “using any part of their body” to support that phone as they drive.

Louisiana has similar, though less restrictive, laws in place. New drivers with “learner's” or “intermediate” licenses and those under 17 years old are prohibited from using cellphones while driving. The state also has a statewide ban on the use of cellphones for writing, sending, or reading text-based communications while driving, regardless of age.

However, despite the influx of related regulations around the country, in addition to roadway safety features and advancements in auto safety technologies, the National Safety Council still estimated that in 2017 there were 40,100 motor vehicle deaths throughout the nation. And more often than not, this is attributed to distraction on the roadway.

“As a community, we try to emphasize human lives,” said Louisiana’s leading researcher on traffic safety Dr. Xiaoduan Sun, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette civil engineering professor. “We try to do everything to make life more enjoyable, but traffic accidents — preventable accidents — take so many lives every year.”

Sun, who often works with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, has been analyzing roadway design for almost 20 years. She has studied and helped implement important safety features, like traffic light cameras, roundabouts, and rumble strips, which are grooves cut into the road that cause a car to jolt repeatedly if driven beyond the lane’s border.

Applying the concept of “forgiving highways” over the years has also significantly reduced the number of accidents by providing more space next to the road to allow drivers to correct themselves or come to a stop at a safe distance from moving vehicles.

Now hoping to look beyond just the physical properties of the road, Sun is collaborating with UL Lafayette psychology professor Dr. Theodore "Scott" Smith to research the behavioral aspect of distracted drivers.

“(We are) looking at a combination of behavioral choices and how the behavioral components can match up with the safety components,” Smith said. “Phones are embedded into our personalities, and the idea of asking people to not look at their phones may not be realistic.”

Louisiana alone saw a 23 percent increase in motor vehicle deaths from 2015 to 2017, according to the NSC, and studies have already proven that drivers are eight times more likely to be involved in a traffic accident if using a cellphone in any capacity while operating a vehicle.

“You have to consider that when you text, every second you look down, you travel 100 yards,” Smith explained. “If you’ve texted for 10 seconds, you’ve traveled the distance of a football field. Would you willingly close your eyes for 10 seconds while driving? Probably not.

“We are in this infantile stage between safety, technology, and a societal expectation of quickly returning messages,” he added.

While most states have seen some form of increase in interstate travel over the last several years, Louisiana interstate travel in the past decade has increased by 43 percent. This was the highest percentage increase of any state in the country, according to Sun.

Part of this could be attributed to more commuters looking beyond their own towns or cities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010-2012 American Community Survey, there were an estimated 52,000 drivers who commuted to Lafayette for work and almost 104,000 who commuted to Baton Rouge.

To add some chaos to the Interstate-10 corridor between Lafayette and Baton Rouge — notoriously known for its accidents and lingering traffic jams —, the La. DOTD is currently working to widen the two-lane roadway into three to adjust for traffic flow.

But the question remains: Will this have any effect on crash and cultural factors of interstate drivers?

Sun said that after studying Highway 90’s successful widening to three lanes, she saw “huge safety benefits” and feels that widening the I-10 corridor will positively affect traffic, especially between Lafayette and Breaux Bridge.

Still, it all depends on driver awareness and limiting distractions.

“Unless we take humans out of the picture, we will always have safety concerns,” Sun said.