Experts on Camera

Dr. Charlie Klauer: Winter road safety

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Traffic collisions are on the rise in the United States, and winter travel can pose special risks on the road.

On Friday, January 12, 2024, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Charlie Klauer, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at Virginia Tech. She’s also a research scientist and the leader for the Applied Driver Assessment, Performance, and Training Group. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.

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CHARLIE KLAUER: I’m Charlie Klauer. I’m a research scientist at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and I’m an associate professor in the Virginia Tech Industrial and Systems Engineering Department. I do research on driver distraction, driver drowsiness, but primarily with teen drivers, and really trying to better understand how we can keep teens safe on our roadways.

Interview with SciLine

How does the United States compare to similar countries in terms of road safety, and why have dangerous driving behaviors increased recently?


CHARLIE KLAUER: Overall, road fatalities have actually been going up in the last several years. And this is an anomaly amongst developed nations. The United States is not doing very well in this department, and we really need to figure out ways why and reasons why. In particular, we do also see increases in speeding behaviors, aggressive driving behaviors, and impaired driving. And there are a lot of societal and cultural—potential societal and cultural—issues behind this. One of which is—and certainly during COVID—there was a drop in police enforcement in a lot of these behaviors. That I believe is returning, but it’s still less than it was prior. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. I think some of it has to do with a lot of police departments being understaffed. But we really do need a return to safety and driving enforcement in order to get those those rates back down.

What is a “safe systems approach” to improving road safety?


CHARLIE KLAUER: The U.S. DOT is pushing forward this notion of a safe systems approach to improving driving safety in the United States. And a safe systems approach does a lot of things, but one of those things is that instead of blaming the driver, we are now—everyone is responsible. All stakeholders are responsible for improving driving safety in the U.S., not just drivers, but also all of the road users and the traffic professionals and our policymakers and our road designers and our car designers. All of us must do what we can to improve driving safety.

How can roads be designed to be safer?


CHARLIE KLAUER: We need to be designing our roadways in such a way that we start to assume that drivers will make mistakes. We are all human, and none of us are perfect. And so we need to be building in more ways to allow for some errors to occur without it resulting in a fatal crash. So, some of those things are improving road design, increasing the number of roundabouts. Roundabouts reduce fatalities significantly. Where we know speeding is a problem, we need to develop better ways to narrow lanes—which I know sounds counterintuitive, but when we narrow those lanes, we actually are reducing speeds. Drivers are not comfortable driving very fast and when that happens they also become more attentive. And so driver distraction we know is increasing, and there are ways to also bring driver’s attention back to the forward roadway in ways that really improve overall safety. So, those are some of the things that I think we need to be thinking about and considering and doing in order to really reduce these fatalities again.

How can drivers prepare for winter weather?


CHARLIE KLAUER: Winter weather does not typically surprise us. We know if a storm is coming. We don’t necessarily know the extent or the severity or exactly how much snow we’re going to get. But in general, weather forecasters are fairly good at letting us know that we’re gonna get at least a few inches or we’re gonna get maybe closer to a foot or so forth. So, when we’re hearing those weather reports, people need to plan. You need to plan for staying off the roadways, especially if there’s no real good reason for you to be out there in the first place. So that’s the first thing. Plan to stay off the road if you absolutely can. So that’s that’s the first thing. The second thing is when we do have really poor weather and poor weather conditions that you have good tires—you do not have bald tires—that your tires are equipped to maneuver in these types of weather conditions, or else you have chains or something else to help you maneuver through the heavy snow and ice.

If drivers must drive in wintry conditions, how should they modify their driving behaviors?


CHARLIE KLAUER: When you are out there and these poor conditions, really, really work to go a speed that you do not need to use your brakes in a rapid fashion. So you only go as fast as you need to in order to maintain speed, maintain forward momentum, where you don’t need to slam on your brakes. Certainly going downhill or other places or over overpasses where you know that the roads may be icier, be very cautious and careful about just driving as smoothly as possible and with no abrupt maneuvers either side to side or with your brake or accelerator. And those types of things will serve you well in those types of conditions.

What are the risks associated with distracted driving and fatigued driving?


CHARLIE KLAUER: For distracted driving, really, the risks are occurring for a distracted driver during the distraction. So when they are looking away from the forward roadway, when they’re mentally engaging in some other tasks, such as texting or scrolling, or you know, searching for something on their phone. When they’re in that activity and looking away from the forward roadway, that’s when their risks are occurring. Anytime you look away from the forward roadway—and we have found our data has shown that two out of six seconds will significantly increase crash risk. And so things happen on the roadway very quickly and drivers must be able to respond to those changes very quickly. So when you’re looking away, that’s when the risks are occurring. For drowsy driving or fatigued driving, it’s a little bit more insidious, honestly, and it’s a little bit more chronic. So as drivers become more and more drowsy, their ability to think and even process that they must respond to something slows down.

What can you tell us about how teen drivers manage distractions?


CHARLIE KLAUER: I, anecdotally, I have video of teen drivers looking down to change the radio station as they’re going to an intersection where the traffic light has just changed. I mean, the world is changing and is very dynamic, and so they look down even for, you know, less than a second, or less than zero and less than two, and they look back up and the world is very different than what they were expecting. And then they must respond to that. So, I think that being judicious and understanding when might be a better time to change the radio station or check to see if someone has called or whatever it may be, there are better times and there are certainly worse times to do that activity. And I think experienced drivers are just better at it.

How do teens become better drivers, and how can parents help them navigate the process?


CHARLIE KLAUER: In order to become a good driver, to become a skilled driver, they must practice. And so we all have to assume and allow for that practice to occur. As parents of teen drivers—parents, one of the best one of the most important things parents can be doing is ensuring that their teen is practicing but in the safest conditions possible. So, when a teen driver starts to practice drive, you know typically parents will take them to a parking lot and then gradually increase their exposure to varying levels of complexity on the roadway. But once a teen starts driving independently, similar behaviors should also happen from a parental perspective. So once teen starts driving independently, they should again back off the types of environments that those teens drive in independently. They should be driving on certain roadways and not driving on very busy highways, freeways with high speeds and very quick decision making. They need to kind of come back down a little bit and drive on comfortable roadways, daylight, clear weather conditions, no passengers in the vehicle, not using their phone. Just really making sure that those teens are in environments where they can be attentive to the roadway and start to learn where some of those hazards may occur.

What advice do you have for reporters covering road safety?

[Posted January 12, 2024 | Download video]