Triclosan, Still

May 21, 2013

I’ve written here a number of times over the past couple of years (most recently here) about triclosan, an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent that is used in a wide variety of consumer products, including anti-bacterial soaps, toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, other cosmetic products, and household cleaning supplies.   The US Food and Drug Administration [FDA] has been conducting a safety and effectiveness review of triclosan for some time now. The review was originally scheduled to be released in April, 2011; last summer, it was promised by the end of the year (2012).  We’re all still waiting.

The Singularity Hub site has an article on this ongoing saga.  It gives a bit more of the history: the FDA issued draft guidelines in 1978, which classified triclosan as “not generally recognized as safe and effective”.  Since the guidelines were never finalized, nothing changed.

The FDA has not given an updated timetable for the release of its review.


Cell Phones and Driving: The Plot Thickens

August 23, 2012

Because of the enormous popularity of cell phones, and the continuing development of these devices to be “smarter” and include more features, many states have enacted restrictions on the use of cell phones while driving.  A common rule forbids texting or the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.  (It’s not clear that these restrictions would address the entire problem; as I’ve noted in an earlier post, there is some evidence that just talking on a cell phone is more distracting than one might think.)  Although these new rules have apparently reduced drivers’ cell phone use to some extent, they do not seem to have reduced accident rates significantly.

My initial reaction, when I read about this, is that perhaps the drivers who had been using cell phones just switched to some other distraction: eating lunch, smacking the kids, or just playing with one of the other electronic toys that are increasingly common in automobiles.  I have personally observed people driving on expressways doing a variety of activities: reading a book, rummaging through a briefcase for papers, and playing the cornet, just to pick a few.

A new study, reported at the Science Now site, suggests a slightly different explanation for the steady accident rate.

You can take the driver away from the cell phone, but you can’t take the risky behavior away from the driver. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds that people who talk on their phones while driving may already be unsafe drivers who are nearly as prone to crash with or without the device.

In other words, the hypothesis is that unsafe drivers are more likely to use cell phones behind the wheel, thereby compounding their incompetence.

Researchers at MIT first asked the 108 drivers included in the study about their typical cell phone usage while driving, their attitudes toward speeding and passing other vehicles, and their driving records.  The participants then took a 40-minute test drive (no cell phones allowed!), on an Interstate highway, i na specially instrumented vehicle.  As a group, the self-reported frequent cell phone users exhibited more risky driving behavior.

Frequent cell phone users, for example, zoomed along about 4.4 kilometers per hour faster on average and changed lanes twice as often, compared with rare users.

The differences observed were not enormous, but  may indicate a higher tolerance for risk taking.  This study used a relatively small sample, but other surveys have produced similar results.

“We have seen the same correlations in our Traffic Safety Culture Index,” says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, an independently funded charitable research and education organization established by the American Automobile Association. The index surveys more than 3100 people each year. The foundation wants to change driver behavior, a challenge more complex than banning phones, he says.

I think the evidence for the proposition that cell phone use is distracting is fairly solid; this research identifies an additional way in which safety can be affected.   As Mr. Kissinger says, changing driver behavior is a challenging task.  One good start would be to try to convince drivers that they are not in a competition.  I think the most important point, though, is one that I made a few years ago in an article I wrote on safe cycling:

The best safety rule is this: don’t crash. The best way to avoid crashing is to focus 100 percent of your attention 100 percent of the time on riding safely.

You may be a bit more protected in a car, but you are probably moving faster; I think the advice works pretty well for driving, too.


Road Train Test

May 29, 2012

Back in January of last year, I posted a note here about some work being done by Volvo to develop the technology for “road trains”.  Using a variety of technologies, including cameras, radar, and laser tracking systems, along with wireless networking, the idea is that a group of specially equipped vehicles can travel together as an ensemble.  One “lead” vehicle, with a skilled driver, will lead the way, and the other will follow along using automated controls.  The motivation is that a road train system could reduce fuel consumption, increase safety, and possibly even relieve congestion, by allowing cars to travel safely in closer proximity.   The work is part of a European Union project, SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment).

A recent article at the Register (a UK-based technology news site) reports that the first tests of the system have now taken place on public roads: 200 km [~ 125 miles] of Spanish motorways.

Three cars have successfully driven themselves by automatically following a lorry [truck] for 125 miles on a public motorway in the presence of other, normal road users.

The average speed during the trip was slightly more than 50 mph.  The three cars stayed in line behind the lead truck, with an average separation of 6 m [~19.6 feet].   Considering that the speed (50 mph) is 70+ feet per second, this spacing would be dangerously close for human drivers; if these results hold up, there would seem to be some validity in the claim of closer proximity travel via this “platooning”.

As with Google’s “self-driving” cars, I think this technology has the potential to make auto travel safer and more efficient.  Both these technologies will also require some changes to traffic laws and people’s attitudes.

Update Tuesday, 29 May, 23:05 EDT

The “Autopia” blog at Wired also has a report on this test, which gives a bit more detail.


A Black Box for your Car, Revisited

May 16, 2012

About a year ago, I posted an article here about the possibility that the US government, specifically the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA], might soon require all new automobiles sold in the US to be equipped with event data recorders [EDRs]. the so-called “black boxes”.  Similar devices have been used for years on commercial aircraft. and the data obtained from them has been of great value in understanding crashes and improving safety.  As I mentioned in that earlier post, many newer cars already have electronic data recorders of some sort.  These have proved to be useful in accident investigations, although how they work and what they record has been, until quite recently, pretty much up to the automaker.

A recent article at Wired provides an update on what’s happening in this area.  At present, although there is no mandate to equip cars with EDRs, the NHTSA’s regulations do specify that, if an EDR is installed, it must collect a specified set of data.

Since 2006, NHTSA has required that consumers be informed when an automaker has installed an EDR in a vehicle, although the disclosure is typically buried on the car’s owner’s manual. More recently, NHTSA mandated that vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2011 that include the devices must record a minimum of 13 data points in a standardized format.

Congress is now considering legislation that would require EDRs to be installed on new vehicles.

[US Senate] Bill 1813 that mandates EDRs for every car sold in the U.S. starting with the model year 2015 has already passed the Senate. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass a version of the bill with slightly different language.

There are privacy concerns about the collection of this data.  At present, the proposed rules say that EDRs can only collect data related to vehicle safety; but it is not hard to imagine that some security agencies might think that recording GPS coordinates might be a useful little enhancement.  Then there is the question of who owns that collected data.  The pending legislation says that the data belongs to the owner or lessee of the vehicle, which is good.  But it’s likely that the devil is in the details, and the ownership rules will need to be carefully drawn.  For example, the article points out that, if a car is “totalled” in a crash, it typically becomes the property of the insurance company.  The company might, in some cases be tempted to declare the car a total loss in order to own the EDR data for use in legal proceedings.

There is a strong case, on safety improvement grounds, for collecting this kind of data.  WE just need to do our best to ensure that it is not misused.


Living with Driverless Cars

May 13, 2012

A couple of days ago, I posted a note on Google’s receiving approval to test its driverless cars in Nevada.  If the technology proves successful, and is adopted to any significant extent, it will probably change how we drive, and how we think about driving, possibly in unexpected ways.

The BBC News Magazine has an article on how some of those changes might play out.  Some of the changes would very likely be positive.  An automated driver will not be talking or texting on a cell phone,  sightseeing, or otherwise diverting its attention to something other than driving.  It will not be sleepy or intoxicated, and will have faster reaction times than a human driver.  That should mean fewer crashes.  Automated driving might also allow more traffic to be carried on the same roadway, because cars could travel closer together, particularly if vehicles are able to communicate with each other, as in the “road train” experiments.  The automated driver can also be programmed to avoid human drivers’ dangerous behavior.

When the car is on self-driving mode, it doesn’t speed, it doesn’t cut you off, it doesn’t tailgate.

Some of the changes suggested in the article seem to me a bit more problematic.  It suggests that the technology might make auto use available to people who currently, because of physical infirmities, cannot drive, such as the elderly, or people with epilepsy.  The article also suggests that a self-driving car could, in effect, run errands on its own.

A car could take the children to school early in the morning, then return home on its own to pick up the parents for their commute.

After a late-night carouse, a drinker could find and reserve a hire car on their phone, then have it pick them up and drive them home.

I’m sure that, properly used, the technology could make driving safer, and allow some people to drive who would otherwise be only marginally capable.  But the idea of having the vehicle operate without at least one competent adult along, in case of emergency, strikes me as ill-advised; I hope that we will require a lot of evidence of the technology’s reliability before we begin that experiment.


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