Monday, February 18, 2019

Avoidable Accidents

Who is "at fault" in an accident is rarely a cut-and-dried issue.

One of the more interesting things to watch on YouTube are dashcam videos. Initially, these were mostly from Russia and a few from China, as apparently in those countries there are a lot of staged accidents and litigation, and thus people have installed dashcams in their cars to record events.

Since then, more and more of these videos are showing up depicting accidents in the United States, as dash cams become more popular here.  In fact, I even bought one, as it only cost $18 at Walmart. They attach the windshield with a suction cup and plug into your cigarette lighter. Insert a memory card and they'll record minutes or even hours of video, saving the last few minutes of video before a major impact.

Enterprising YouTubers have put together videos showing series of these accidents.  And once you click on one of these videos, YouTube decides that's all you want to watch and suggests one video after another.  You can spend an entire evening watching cars collide.  Or knitting videos.

These would be good educational videos for kids in high school, but the teacher who showed them would no doubt be chastised for "traumatizing" the students.   We had a 5th grade teacher who showed "highway horror" videos from the 1950's around Halloween.  They were pretty gruesome, showing decapitated heads and mutilated bodies.  Today, she would be fired for that, and counselors brought in to tend to all the traumatized special snowflakes.

These dashcam videos would not be very instructive unless accompanied by some commentary by an adult, however.  Kids look at these videos and try to figure out who is "at fault" - as if you can pin everything bad in life on one event or one person.   But life isn't as cut-and-dried as that - in terms of car accidents or your finances.

What is interesting about these videos as you see certain patterns appear again and again.  It's not that people do stupid things that cause accidents - that is predictable.  What is interesting is that there are clearly opportunities for other people to avoid the accident that was caused by the other person, yet the person who could have avoided the accident didn't do so, often because of their own poor driving habits.

Back when I was younger and used to get a lot of speeding tickets, I had to attend traffic school.  They taught us then what was called Defensive Driving and it illustrated why we have various traffic laws.  We learned that accidents occurred not because one person did something wrong, but because other people didn't anticipate that another person would do something wrong.  Causation is illusory, as I noted before.

There are a number of behaviors that most people engage in that end up placing them a situation where, if somebody else does something egregiously bad, or something happens that no one has control over (weather, etc.), they have no way of avoiding getting into the accident.  Here are a few of these bad behaviors that can cause you to get into an accident, even if it is "caused" by someone else or some other action:

Driving too fast for conditions:  In almost all the videos we watch, the person with the dashcam is driving too fast for conditions.  Granted, there are other people in these videos who do something horrendous that is often the direct cause of the accident.  But usually, the person with the dashcam, if they had been driving slower, could have reacted in time and avoided the collision.

Driving too fast for conditions falls under number of different subcategories. The first is in the city or congested driving. Speed limits in cities and urban areas are lower than in the country for valid reasons.  If you are driving through a development, there's a chance that somebody will be backing out of their driveway or trying to merge from a side street.  If you were going 50 or 60 miles an hour, it's hard for people to merge into traffic.  Moreover, they have a harder time judging how fast you were approaching and they pull out right in front of you thinking you are only going thirty when you are in fact going double the limit.

You have to expect people to pull out of every side street, alleyway, driveway, or parking garage.   If you expect this and watch for it, it is a lot harder to hit such folks, even if they are "inattentive" at "at fault" for pulling out.

Another example occurs during more rural  driving. We see many videos where people are out-driving their headlights or visual distance in rain, snowfall, or darkness.   When driving, the combination of your reaction time and stopping time should be less than the distance you can see.  For example, if at night, you can see a 1/4 mile down the road clearly, and you are travelling at a rate of speed where your reaction time and stopping distance would be 3/8 of a mile, you are basically screwed if a deer jumps out in front of you, or you come upon a wreck in the road.  Never out-drive your sight distance.  

Then there's also the issue of road conditions. Speeding in the rain or snow is idiotic as you can easily lose traction and then have no control over your vehicle and end up hitting a wall.  Yet many of these accident videos show people speeding in snowy, icy, or even just wet weather.

Tailgating:  this one seems self-explanatory, yet many of the dashcam videos show people driving too fast for conditions and too closely to the person ahead of them.  What's worse, they see brake lights going on ahead of them but fail to immediately slow down, assuming the people putting their brakes on or doing so for no real apparent reason.

You should at least be three seconds behind the car ahead of you in order to be able to react in time to a sudden stop and also have the necessary stopping distance.  In snowy or rainy weather or other conditions were sight distance is limited and traction is less than optimal, you probably should extend this amount.

Quite frankly, there's no reason to even to be driving even this closely together.  You aren't getting where anywhere any faster by riding on somebody's bumper or even three seconds behind them. You'll get to where you are going even if you're five, ten, or fifteen seconds behind the car ahead of you - and do so much more safely.

Every time we have bad weather in the United States whether it be snow, rain, or fog, there is always some sort of chain-reaction accident where 15, 20, 30, or even 40 cars pile into each other.  And you can see this is a result of people tailgating or driving too closely,  as they cannot respond in time if somebody stops suddenly in front of them or there is a wreck in the road.  Maintaining a safe distance of the car ahead of you and not out driving your sight distance rule avoid these problems entirely.

(Note also, it helps to put your lights on and even flashers, in foggy weather.  It never ceases to amaze me, how people in grey cars will drive 70 mph in dense fog with their lights off - or worse yet, drive 30 mph on the Interstate in a grey car with their lights off.   One wonders if they are trying to stage an accident!)

Sadly, even if you maintain proper distance and driving within your sight distance, the guy behind you might not.  So when you slow down because of a fog bank or a wrecked car in front of you he  is likely to plow into you.  Sometimes, it is best to get off at the next exit, gas up the car, get coffee, and relax for a while - the weather can change quickly and the rain or fog could dissipate by the time you get back on the road.   I learned that one the hard way!

Pulling up too close to the car ahead of you:  oddly enough, a lot of the accidents shown in these dashcam videos are very slow speed accidents that occur when somebody pulls up right behind a car ahead of them at a traffic light.  For one reason or another, the person in front decides to back up - either they want to change direction, or they have pulled too far into the crosswalk.

Since the person behind them is only five feet off their bumper, the guy backs into them at slow speed causing minor damage. What's interesting about these accidents, is the person behind never bothers to sound the horn until after the collision has occurred.  Either they are being inattentive themselves, or they are intentionally staging an accident by pulling right up behind somebody.

Either way, these accidents are entirely avoidable, if you don't pull up right behind somebody's bumper (unless you are Grace Jones) and then pay attention to what's going on.  If you see the guy ahead of you put on his back up lights you should sound the horn immediately, rather than wait for them to plow it in your front bumper.  Seems like a simple thing but it seems to elude a lot of people, at least from what we see on YouTube.

Let 'em in!  The number of accidents (and "road rage" incidents) that we see on these videos occur when people try to merge . Sometimes the person merging is being a jerk, cutting ahead of traffic and trying to get ahead in the game, even if "getting ahead" means being one car length ahead.  Granted, such people are rude and inconsiderate idiots, but trying to make a game out of it by not allowing them to merge isn't solving anything.  And sometimes, they aren't being rude or inconsiderate - they just get stuck in the merge because other idiots won't let them in, so eventually, they have to cut in front of someone.

What usually ends up happening is a minor collision followed by people screaming at each other -each blaming the other for being at fault.  If somebody wants to be rude and inconsiderate individual, you can try it at school them by not allowing them to merge, or you can just let them merge and move on with life.  It's such a trivial thing to get upset about.

And yes, I can confess that I've been upset by this in the past, when we are trying to get through a construction site or other backup and some asshole wants to pull up on the right shoulder and then cut in at the last minute - or use the exit lane as a passing lane to pull ahead of several cars (why?). But thanks to the YouTube, we know that such people often end up getting schooled by the police rather than by other drivers.  There are rewarding so-called "karma" videos, showing where people being pulled over almost right away when they try to pass on the shoulder or fail to allow others to merge. What goes around comes around, and people with poor and sloppy driving habits often end up getting ticket after ticket and paying outrageous insurance premiums. The wheel of karma spins very quickly as I've noted before.  Don't feel you have to enforce Karma - it enforces itself.

Never turn left:  as I noted before in my posting about motorcycles, the vast majority of accidents occur when somebody tries to turn left.  Either the motorcycle tries to turn left in front of traffic and people fail to appreciate the motorcycle is a "real" vehicle and plow into it, or people turn left in front of a motorcycle, failing to appreciate the motorcycle is traveling at a good rate of speed (see my comment above about too fast for conditions) then the motorcycle plows into them.

Either way, left turns are far more dangerous than right turns or any other means of traversing a traffic intersection.  United Parcel Service, one of my former employers, famously reroutes its trucks to try to avoid left hand turns.  It's not always possible to do this, but sometimes three rights make a left.

It never ceases to amaze me that in Old Town Alexandria during rush hour, people try to make left turns from South Washington Street onto King or Duke. Usually, these were proscribed during rush hour for obvious reasons.  Don't you try to make a left hand turn on a busy street, cars will pile up behind you, sometimes literally.  And as you turn left onto another street, some good Samaritan will "let you in" but other people aren't aware of this new arrangement you've made to amend the traffic rules and will try to go around the good Samaritan and then plow into you.

You can argue all day who was right and who is wrong, but usually left turns end up causing accidents so just avoid them when you can.  Make three rights or try to make a left turn where there's a left turn lane with a left turn arrow and then backtrack if necessary.  A few extra minutes you spend doing this could end up saving you an awful lot of hassle and maybe even someone's life.

Goddamn Trolleys:  There are a lot of videos on YouTube showing collisions between cars and trolleys. Most of these are in foreign countries where trolleys are more popular.  However some of them are from the United States were trolleys are gaining acceptance as ill-conceived trolley projects are put into place, often lobbied for by the companies that manufacture these beasts.  The problem is, the trolleys run through the center of the roadway and people fail to realize that these trolleys have the right of way by default.

In the typical accident, the driver turns left in front of the trolley because he can't see it, as it is in his blind spot. There are lights and warning signs that the trolley is going through, but people fail to recognize these. They plow into the trolley which does little damage to the trolley, but usually destroys their car.  In one or two incidents we've seen on YouTube, the trolley actually derails, which is pretty dramatic.

Again, the way to avoid these accidents is to avoid left turns.  Also avoid going to your town council meeting and advocating for a trolley system, as it really is unnecessary.  Myself, when I'm in one of these situations where I see trolley tracks down the middle of street, I try to stay in the right lane, and if I have to make a left, I'll make three rights instead and then cross the intersection when I have a green light, which means that not only is the traffic clear, but the trolley is clear as well.

The A-pillar AccidentI covered this before, and it is almost spooky how the A-pillar on your car can completely block your view of even a garbage truck - until it "suddenly appears" in front of  you and you hit it.   Coming to a complete stop at a stop sign avoids this problem, as your blocked vision area is no longer synchronized with the movement of the other vehicle.

But not only should you avoid causing an A-pillar accident, you should expect others to try to cause them.   When you come to an intersection, particularly a two-way stop (where you have right-of-way) you should expect the person on the cross street to roll or run the stop sign (it is a popular sport as of late).   Don't be afraid to honk your horn if they seem inclined to roll it, are looking the other way, or otherwise seem inattentive.  Be prepared to stop if they pull out in front of you.  Slowing down often changes your speed enough so they will see you around the A-pillar.   The point is, there are things you can do other than be a passive victim in a collision.

* * *

The list goes on and on. They are very simple things you can do while driving that will help you avoid getting into accidents caused by the malfeasance of other people.

What is this have to do with personal finances? Well, to begin with, the fewer speeding tickets you get means your insurance rates will plummet.  I currently pay only a few tens of dollars a month to ensure each of our vehicles, where some people pay hundreds of dollars a month. This is an enormous savings right there.

When I was younger, I drove like a maniac, and not only that, I didn't take into account that other people would do idiotic things while driving. As a result, I got a lot of tickets and got into a couple of accidents - until my insurance premiums were more than my car payments. This was completely idiotic. At that age, I should have bought a second-hand jalopy and not bother paying collision insurance on it.

(I should note that my parents were horrible drivers as well - they were routine speeders and late brakers - often not applying the brakes until they were in the crosswalk!  They also rolled stop signs, tailgated, and got into a number of wrecks.  Of course, I mimicked their behavior, which terrified my driver ed teacher!).

It doesn't matter if the other guy is at fault. My experience of being in car accidents is that you never come out 100% whole on these deals.  Oh sure, you might see these billboards down in Florida for two smiling people - shown in a headshot - proclaim how some law firm got them a half a million dollars.   What they don't show is the lower half of the picture where they have a leg missing or are confined to a wheelchair.  There is no winning in a car accident.

In your financial life, similar effects can occur.  Other people do stupid things or things will happen to you that are outside of your control, and if you're not prepared, bad things could happen to you.

For example, the President decides to shut down the government, and you are a low level government employee who is living paycheck-to-paycheck. You have leveraged yourself into debt and payments because you want to have all the channels of cable TV, a leased car, in a fancy apartment that you think you're entitled to. You have no savings, and once the money train stops, you're basically screwed.  And since your credit cards are all maxed out, you can't even charge your groceries on those until you get paid back by the government.

Whose fault is it?   You can blame the government, the Republicans, or the Democrats.   But just like a car wreck, they might be at fault, but if you weren't tailgating with your paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, you could have stopped in time, or at least swerved off onto the shoulder and been safe.

Or worse yet, you're a government contractor, and you are immediately laid off as your employer is no longer getting paid by the government.  You'll never get paid back, since you don't work for the government, and since you're living paycheck-to-paycheck you are utterly screwed and probably facing foreclosure or eviction.  But again, whose fault is it not to have any savings, while at the same time having a new iPhone?   And  you laugh - a lot of people live this way.  I know this from experience, being a former government employee, and seeing how my co-workers structured their lives around their weekly paycheck.

You can argue with the other guy's fault - and maybe it is.  But these things are sort of to be expected over time.  Whether it's a government shutdown or an economic recession or being laid off from your job or some other downturn.  If drive your car long enough, you can expect to be in an accident - on the average every 11 years.  It is a predictable outcome.  Accidents happen and they happen at quite a regular frequency.  In fact, death by motor vehicle is a very common form of dying in the United States - with about 40,000 people passing away every year behind the wheel.

Sure, maybe self-driving cars will solve this problem. But that's not going to happen for at least a decade. In the meantime we have to look out for each other and drive carefully and also look out for the people who aren't driving carefully.

Similarly, You could argue that electing Democrat Socialists will solve all your personal economic problems, but that's not likely to happen for at least a decade - if ever.  Counting on political solutions to solve personal problems is never a good idea.  Rather, you should drive carefully in your financial life and be prepared for the inevitable, as the inevitable will happen to you eventually.

It could be a layoff, or an illness, or a recession, or your house burning down.   Bad things are likely to happen, and if you go through life without these happening, consider yourself lucky, but don't plan on being lucky.  Drive defensively - in your finances, as well as with  your car!