MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Banning bikinis would do more for traffic safety than banning hand-held cell phones in this tropical city.
Although driving while phoning has been coming in for a lot of criticism lately, it isn't the greatest cause of traffic accidents here. Driving while gawking is.
Statistically, of course, that's hard to prove. Miami Beach police, like their peers elsewhere, generally use the terms "distraction" and "inattention" to describe crashes resulting from, well, distraction and inattention. They seldom specify.
But empirical observation supports their conventional wisdom that the abundance of scantily clad flesh in places such as South Beach in Miami contributes more to traffic mayhem than chatting on a phone. A study released Thursday by the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that most accidents are caused by more ordinary types of driver distraction -- such as passengers arguing or the driver trying to eat or drink.
Driving is a visual thing. A vehicle tends to move in the direction its driver is looking. Several of us interested in checking this theory did a little experiment at the Homestead Motor Speedway, about 35 miles south of here.
We were under the instruction of professional drivers from the Skip Barber Driving School. Orange cones were set up at various points along the track. We were told to make quick, peripheral visual references to the cones, while zipping around the track at speeds of up to 100 mph.
We smashed and crumpled many of those cones. Instead of, in effect, scanning their location, some of us stared at them -- until we crushed them beneath the wheels of a fleet of 2002 Infiniti Q45 cars.
The same thing happens on the street, our Skip Barber instructors said. You see something or someone that draws your attention from the road. It only takes a few seconds. Crash!
Of course, gabbing on hand-held cell phones while trying to steer through traffic can be dangerous. But, the AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety completed a national study of 26,145 accidents showing that other forms of driver behavior are more risky.
The accidents analyzed by AAA occurred from 1995 through 1998, just as cell phone sales were accelerating. Of the accidents it studied, only 2 percent were directly linked to cell phone use at the time of the crash, the AAA said.
By far, according to the association, the biggest cause of the distraction-related crashes was driving while eating and drinking -- 19 percent of the total.
Cell phone crashes ranked slightly higher than crashes caused by smoking and driving, 1 percent; adjusting air conditioner or heater knobs, 1 percent; and tuning the radio, 1 percent.
Three percent of the distraction-related crashes reviewed by AAA were caused by drivers leaning down to pick up an object -- while trying to steer.
Passengers were blamed for 9 percent of the crashes studied by AAA. And passengers have all kinds of ways of messing up. They can argue, speak too loudly among themselves, direct the driver's attention to a fixed object, or literally interfere with vehicle steering.
And those bikinis? Well, the AAA study does not mention bikinis -- or bare-chested men -- per se. Instead, it speaks of crashes caused by drivers "looking at outside objects" -- 20 percent.
But, in any case, drivers on cell phones are the least of my problems here. The challenge is to avoid being rear-ended, or rear-ending someone else, because of the large number of briefly clad bodies on parade.
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