This week I am so pleased to debut the first in a series of posts about different folks in the traffic safety world!
Doug Dahl is a Target Zero Manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and a self-confessed traffic safety nerd. He authors a weekly traffic safety column for the Bellingham Herald and hosts a traffic safety website called TheWiseDrive.com. Doug’s passion for traffic safety began during his previous career as a deputy for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, and his fascination with driving began much earlier; at age five, he dreamed of becoming a race car driver as he slept in pajamas covered with Indy cars. He’s been to racing school, but he spends most of his recreational time on a bicycle.
ML: What do you actually do?
DD: I’m a Target Zero Manager—doesn’t that explain everything? I rarely tell people my job title, because it mostly just confuses them. There are 17 Target Zero Managers (TZMs) across the state. We work regionally toward our statewide goal of zero fatal and serious injury traffic crashes. That’s where the “Target Zero” comes from. As to what I actually do: I work with local law enforcement agencies to coordinate traffic safety emphasis patrols for DUI, distracted driving, speeding, and seatbelts. I partner with local organizations on traffic safety campaigns, like Bellingham’s Travel With Care educational and enforcement campaign. I work with students on traffic safety projects. Education is an important part of the job; as part of that, I write a weekly traffic safety column in the Bellingham Herald and run TheWiseDrive.com, a traffic safety website. I provide traffic safety data to community leaders so they can be informed as they make transportation-related decisions. The list goes on. If it’s traffic safety, I’ll probably say yes.
ML: How did you get into traffic safety? After all, most kids don’t think, “When I grow up, I want to be a Target Zero Manager—or a traffic nerd.”
DD: I began my public safety work as a deputy for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. Working on the road, I saw firsthand the consequences of poor driving decisions. Traffic crashes affect more people in our communities than most any other crime. We usually think of crime as being done by “bad guys,” but most of the time when law enforcement responds to a death or serious injury, it was caused by someone who made a poor decision in their driving—driving while impaired, speeding, getting distracted, driving aggressively, and not making driving the priority. I think we, as drivers, can have a huge positive influence on our community by becoming better at driving, and I want to help people become safer drivers.
You mentioned “traffic nerd” and there is also a nerdy aspect to traffic safety that I enjoy. Decisions about how to solve traffic safety problems are heavily data-driven. Where are crashes happening? Who is involved? What factors caused the crash? Crash data tells a story, and once we understand the story we can be a part of determining the story’s outcome in the future. I like that.
ML: What do you cover in your blog The Wise Drive? And where do you get your ideas for its topics? Do they come from readers or do you mostly come up with your own?
DD: Almost every post on The Wise Drive begins with a question from a reader about some traffic question they hope to get answered. In addition to reader questions, I’ll occasionally cover other topics in traffic safety. I also like to highlight a traffic safety PSA once in a while—sometimes because it’s a great PSA and sometimes because it’s so terrible.
ML: What has been the reception to your column “Road Rules” in the Bellingham Herald newspaper?
DD: Mostly positive. When I started writing the column, I’d get feedback from friends and family and that was about it. I remember the first time someone I hadn’t met talked to me because he recognized me from my picture in the paper. I was in Home Depot. Now it’s not uncommon to encounter someone with a traffic question. The only real pushback I’ve received is when I write about speeding and speed enforcement (especially the idea of using photo enforcement for speeding). Speeding is the number-two factor for fatal crashes in Washington (impaired driving is number one), and despite all the data confirming that consistent speed enforcement reduces fatal crashes, there are some people out there that think speeding isn’t a big deal.
ML: What has been the strangest question a reader has asked you?
DD: One of the more entertaining questions would have to be, “What would happen if I tried to outrun the cops on a traffic stop?” It, however, was not too challenging to answer. Those tend to be questions more related to complexities in the law. It’s amazing how often I think I know the law, until someone asks a question and I discover exceptions and lack of clarity in what should be a pretty clear topic. Often we get tripped up because we think the law and the best action are the same thing, when they sometimes are not. A recent example of this was a question about transporting pets in the bed of a pickup truck. Pretty much everyone knows you should secure your dog in the back of your truck, but that doesn’t mean it’s the law.
ML: If you had one piece of advice for today’s drivers, what would it be?
DD: When you’re driving, your number-one priority is driving. That seems obvious, but for many people driving has become a secondary task while they try to take care of other things—catching up on phone calls, checking voicemails, responding to texts, squeezing in a meal, shaving, putting on makeup, reading a book, watching a movie, playing guitar. I’ve seen drivers doing all those things. The whole goal of driving is to safely go from one place to another. Too many drivers compromise that goal by misprioritizing their activities. When you’re driving, just drive.
ML: What sorts of projects are you working on now? Is there a particular one that you hope to develop into something much bigger?
DD: Right now I’m working on a project to help businesses develop and implement distracted driving policies for their companies. If a business with employees who drive as part of the job doesn’t have a policy on distracted driving, they increase the risk to their workers and expose themselves to a lot of liability in the event of an employee crash. In addition to injuries and loss of life caused by employees, court settlements can cost companies millions of dollars. The largest distracted driving settlement I’m aware of was nearly $50 million.
There’s another (less serious) project I’m hoping to do in the future that I’m calling “Test Drive Kitchen.” It would be a video series where I’d test drive a car and review its safety features while simultaneously cooking a meal on the engine of the car. Each episode would end with a summary of the car’s safety performance while eating the engine-cooked meal.
ML: What’s your favorite topic in traffic safety?
DD: I don’t know if I have a favorite, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how we limit traffic safety to a safe driving problem when it’s actually bigger than that; it’s a social justice issue. If you look at crash data and driver demographics, you’ll see right away that our youngest and oldest drivers are overrepresented in fatal crashes. But if you dig deeper, poverty has a greater influence on the likelihood of surviving on the road than the age of the driver. For a lot of reasons.
There are eleven models of cars that no one has died in over the past four years. The list includes two Audis, two BMWs, two Lexuses, and a Mercedes. Safety is expensive. The reductions we’ve seen in traffic deaths over the last few decades often aren’t because we’ve become better drivers; it’s partly because car manufacturers are doing a better job of keeping us alive when we crash. If your income limits you to an old car, you won’t get the benefits of newer safety engineering. Add to that the lack of transportation infrastructure investment in poorer communities, the increased number of pedestrians who have to navigate that deteriorating transportation infrastructure, and a variety of other reasons I don’t have room to go into here.
And beyond the poverty issue, there are too many victims of traffic crashes that weren’t at fault but bore the cost of a driver’s poor choice. Often these are vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. If a society’s goodness is determined by how well we care for the most vulnerable in our community, we have a lot of work ahead of us when it comes to traffic safety.
ML: You do a lot with kids in your line of work. Do you find that adults have a lot of assumptions about teenagers and safety that just aren’t true? What do you learn from young people?
DD: Young drivers are a paradox. They crash cars at two or three times the rate of more experienced drivers, but they also seem to care a lot more about traffic safety. As an example, last year when Washington passed a new distracted driving law, I spent a lot of time at community events in an effort to help drivers understand the new law. I talked with a lot of drivers and it seemed like a disturbingly high percentage of them thought the distracted driving law was just one more hassle they’d have to work around instead of a prompt to encourage safer driving. The exception to that experience was when I was at Western Washington University’s Fall Info Fair. The students overwhelmingly supported the new law, and more importantly, felt strongly about the importance of not driving distracted. Some of them told me how they have to remind their parents to put away the phone when driving. Despite how often they crash, when I work with young drivers I’m hopeful for the future of traffic safety.
ML: What can we all be doing to increase our safety on the road?
In a recent study, 88 percent of drivers considered themselves to be above average at driving. Clearly, we have a discrepancy in the math. We all could probably benefit from some self-evaluation when it comes to our driving skills. Actually, if you really want to be safe, ride the bus.
We talk about the three E’s of traffic safety: Education, Enforcement, and Engineering. There’s another E that we don’t often think of but is really important: Exposure. The more time you spend on the road, the higher the likelihood of being involved in a driving incident. It’s just math. Beyond that basic idea of exposure, there’s also the kinds of exposure you encounter as a road user. Driving at 2 AM on a weekend means you’ll be sharing the road with a higher percentage of impaired drivers. Driving in inclement weather means you’ll encounter more road hazards. Picking up your phone makes you a road hazard.
You can probably think of many other kinds of exposure. The point is, driving is a risk. Acknowledge that risk and make driving decisions to minimize it. The best drivers remember that half the people they’re sharing the road with are below average at driving.
Think ahead, see the road, and make driving all about driving.