Life Behind the Wheel, a Roadmap for Safety

Mar 2, 2012, 7:15 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

How safely Americans drive across the generations, and how they can improve on that, is the focus of a new documentary, “Life Behind the Wheel,” airing at 8am Saturday, March 3 on the Discovery Channel and Discovery Education. Program experts include Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The program looks at lurking dangers, such as texting while driving and improperly installed car seats as well as community partnerships to improve car safety including car seat installation programs and new technology to help parents track their teens driving habits.

Some statistics offered by Discovery explain the critical value of the program:

  • 70 percent of all child car seats in the U.S. are improperly installed
  • Vehicle crashes are the single greatest cause of death for teenagers
  • A driver is between 8 and 23 times more likely to crash if texting while driving
  • Fatality rates per mile driven for 75 to 79 year olds are more than four times as high as those for 30-59 year olds.

The program can also be accessed for free on Discovery's patient education website or on iTunes.

One feature of the program is a look at new technologies expected in cars over the next few years that can help protect drivers and passengers. For example, some General Motors 2013 model cars will have center air bags, which deploy from the right-hand side of the driver's seat during a side-impact collision from either side, and can keep front seat occupants' heads from knocking against each other. Note the program received funding support from Toyota.

But many drivers hold onto their cars for years, and won’t quickly be able to take advantage of new safety features. A study published a few weeks ago by Polk, an automotive research firm, found that Americans are holding onto their cars for eleven years, on average, a record high.

“Budget is a concern for most people," says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But Rader says people don’t have to spend as much as they might think to get a safer used car. A used luxury car no more than seven years old is likely to have key safety features such as side air bags, electronic stability control (which can keep drivers from swerving) and a better crash test rating. (Read more about safer cars from

“Ten years ago the safety goal in cars was to keep people alive in case of a crash. Now it’s about keeping the crash from happening in the first place," says Sherrice Gilsboch, associate online editor at Shop Auto Week.

Gilbosch says recently introduced safety features include collision warnings, including blind spot detection, monitoring what’s behind a car, and safe lane changes. The alerts include sound warnings, flashing lights, steering wheel vibrations and a tug back toward the center.

Carrroll Lachnit, features editor of car website says the best add-on safety feature may be an advanced driver course, often available through AAA offices or the AARP. For example, says Lachnit, many people have never used anti-lock brakes, now available on ninety percent of cars, and might not know what to expect, or how best to use them in the event of an accident. The courses, says Lachnit, often can simulate that what’s it’s like to be in a car and out of control and how to try deal with it.

>>Bonus Viewing: See a trailer from "Life Behind the Wheel."

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.