Monday, April 25, 2016

Do bicycle helmets make any difference?

In 2014 a neurosurgeon went on record stating that bicycle helmets make no difference to the safety of the cyclist. I've long held this view. Being a motorcyclist, I wear a full-face helmet. Those are solid shells, with shatter-resistant face shields, filled with high density polystyrene, surrounded by a strong loop in the chin bar to help with structural integrity. From direct personal experience I can tell you motorcycle helmets absolutely do save lives. I wouldn't be writing this entry if I'd not been wearing my helmet in the two crashes I've had. But I've long questioned the flimsy little foam things that cyclists wear. The don't cover the sides of the head, they offer no protection to the face and they have no structural integrity (you can snap most of them in two just with your hands - even the expensive ones).
In January this year, another study was completed that largely came to the same conclusion, but discovered in addition that cyclists take more risks when wearing a helmet because they think they're safer (the same is true of car drivers who drive in airbag-laden cars that are soundproofed - they take more risks because they think they're safer).
A study published in The British Medical Journal last year looked at hospitalisations in 11 countries with varying helmet laws, and found that wearing helmets did not lower injury rates.
Considering the various studies on this issue and the real-world data, you have to ask whether it's worth wearing a bicycle helmet at all.
I'll support motorcycle helmet laws to the end of time because data proves time and time again that they are worth it. But when all the science shows that bicycle helmets almost do more harm than good (because of their placebo effect) I'd be quite happy to support a call to make them optional rather than mandatory.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Your responsibility as second-in-line

A quick post this week. If you read this blog regularly you'll know that I regularly talk about the importance of traffic flow. So this post is about your responsibility as the second car in line when stopped at a red light. It's simple; if the person at the front hasn't noticed the green light within 2 seconds, use your horn with a single 'toot' to attract their attention. This way you don't all sit at a green light while the driver in front finishes their text, and end up missing the entire green cycle.
Although if you're the driver at the front, it's your responsibility to be paying attention ....

Monday, April 11, 2016

Time exposed to danger.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a colleague about the merits of better driver training and the subject of 'time exposed to danger' came up (referred to from hereon as TETD). In some countries, this is part of driver training. In the U.S it isn't. The principle is simple - when you're going to make a maneuver whilst driving, you should minimise your TETD. What does this mean?
Take a simple example: you're on a motorway, coming up to a semi / articulated truck, and you want to pass. To minimise your TETD, the best option is to hold back until the entire lane next to the truck is clear, then pull out, pass quickly, and pull back in far enough in front so as not to cause the truck to need to slow down. The worst option is to set your cruise control / right foot to 2km/h faster than the truck, pull out and spend 30 seconds slowly overtaking. Trucks are big, the maneuver slow, they are riddled with blind spots and they do a lot of damage. The last thing you should be doing is dawdling next to one. Doubly so if you're on a motorbike. Your safest bet is to pass quickly, in one go.
The same is true in urban areas. If you're sitting in a side street waiting to join a main road, to minimise your TETD you should pull out and quickly accelerate up to the speed of the rest of the traffic, thus creating the minimum impediment for other road users. The worst option is to pull out slowly, then gently idle up to the speed limit. By doing this, you're taking longer to reach the average speed of the rest of the traffic, and the speed differential in this case is your exposure to danger. By accelerating smartly, you quickly reach the same speed as everyone else and your time spent as a 'rock in the stream' is vastly reduced.
Similarly if you're on a narrow road wanting to pass a cyclist, don't dawdle past him, nervously crossing the center painted line. Wait for the oncoming traffic to clear, and pass quickly. Instead of spending 20 seconds 'sort of' in oncoming traffic, straddling the line, you spend 2 seconds in the other lane then pull back in.
Finally - and this might seem like it's a bit out of the left field - consider your options if you live in an earthquake zone. Let's say you're in a line of traffic queued up under a motorway, waiting for the lights to change so you can turn and head up the on-ramp. To minimise your TETD, you would ideally wait with clear sky above you, even if this means leaving a gap to the traffic in front. When the lights change, accelerate under the overpass and around to the on-ramp. In an earthquake zone, the worst option is to wait underneath the overpass because should the worst happen, you're stuck in a line of parked traffic with a couple of hundred tons of concrete, rebar, trucks, trains and cars over your head, and the 3mm of pressed steel in your roof won't stop you from becoming a smear of jam when the overpass collapses.
So consider your time exposed to danger next time you're passing a three-trailer delivery truck with your cruise control set to 1km/h faster than him.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Can Uber regulate the condition of their cars?

A Couple of weeks ago I was on a business trip to San Francisco and rather than rent a car, the group I was with decided to use Uber to get around. The service itself was pretty slick, but the condition of the cars was something that definitely needs some sort of regulation. Don't get me wrong - I love the idea of Uber, but the implementation of it from a safety point of view leaves a lot to be desired.
Over the 5 days we were there, we Uber'd 6 times. The initial ride picked us up from the airport in the middle of a reasonably strong California downpour. Low visibility, roads covered in standing water, lots of spray. The tyres on the car that picked us up were not so much bald as they were non-existent. The driver had gone through the tread and was driving on the canvas cords and steel bands. That car wouldn't have been safe in the dry. In the wet it was like driving on teflon. We aquaplaned on the slightest puddle but the driver didn't seem phased.
The second ride was fine in terms of the car (a Prius) but the driver was the scary part that time around. His driving style was either 100% accelerator or 100% brake and red lights meant nothing to him.
The third ride was about the best of the bunch - a reasonably new Chevy Tahoe in good condition with a careful driver.
The remaining rides were a combination of poorly maintained cars (massive oil leaks, no brakes, no tread on the tyres, broken headlights and such) and drivers who were more willing to get into a knock-down-drag-out fight than they were to drive us to our destination (because we refused to get into a car that had the exhaust dragging on the road).
I know there are horror stories on both sides of the divide for Uber - both from drivers who had terrible passengers, and from passengers like us who had a wildly variable set of rides and drivers. One of those is easier to fix than the other - the actual vehicles. Regulations exist in the taxi industry for a reason - generally to try to ensure some level of safety. (Although that being said, I've also travelled in regular taxis in America where even regulated businesses seem able to put total deathtraps on the road).
Uber is a great idea, but until they come up with some way of guaranteeing the basic condition of the driver's vehicles, I think I'm going to pass on it for the time being.

Monday, March 28, 2016

What does winter 'cost' you?

If you're one of those people who religiously tallies your own fuel costs (using an app or a spreadsheet) you might notice that things take dip during the winter. With spring around the corner (at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere), warmer weather is on the way and at this point you might notice things improving in terms of the cost of running your car. With modern cars, loaded with electronics, comfort and convenience features, winter can 'cost' you up to 1mpg or about 0.75l/100km.
The reason for this is a combination of things.
If your car has heated seats, heated steering wheel, heated mirrors, heated washer jets or any combination of the above, and it's sufficiently cold, you'll be likely using one or more of those heaters each time you drive in the winter. The added electrical load means the alternator has to work more which puts a little extra load on the engine.
Then there's the fuel. During the winter months, many refineries distribute a 'winter' fuel mixture in an attempt to help with emissions during cold weather. This is actually a throwback to the 60's where emission technologies in cars were almost none-existent. Nowadays it makes almost no difference at all to the emissions, but the 'winter' blend typically has more ethanol in it and less actual petrol. Ethanol has less specific energy capacity so the more that it's blended with petrol, the less energy you get per volume in your car. In short, the higher the ethanol blend, the worse your gas-mileage becomes.
Finally there's the commuter stress. If you live close to where you work, during the winter months your engine likely never gets properly hot during the morning commute. Engine management systems tend to run a slightly richer fuel mixture in cold engines as well as altering the timing.
The combination of more electrical load, poorer fuel quality and colder engines are what add up to that 1mpg drop in economy during the winter.
On the plus side, the ice-cold air means the air charge going into your engine makes the engine a little more powerful (denser air means more fuel and air in the cylinder before detonation). You might feel this in the response and performance of the engine and that might encourage you to drive faster, which can also lead to lower economy :)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Alonso's F1 crash in Melbourne highlights how safe F1 cars are.

Call it a racing incident, call it distracted driving (Gutierrez was preoccupied trying to reprogram something on his steering wheel), call it bad braking - Alonso's crash in Melbourne this sunday was horrific whichever way you look at it.

What the video above doesn't show is that Alonso managed to get himself out of the wreckage unassisted and walked away. He was later checked out by the medical crew and found to have no serious injuries (although he is now limping).
F1 is a great sports and it's inherently dangerous. But the safety innovations in the design of the cars have come on in leaps and bounds as the years go by and only 10 years ago, this would likely have been a fatal crash. For Alonso to be able to have such tremendous forces applied to the car during this crash and be able to get out and walk away is a testament to the skill and engineering involved in creating modern F1 cars. If you watch the footage after the crash, where the crane is lifting the wreckage over the catch barrier, you'll see the cockpit of the car was completely intact - the safety cell was undamaged by the impact.
It does call into question the use of gravel traps again though. Most F1 circuits have asphalt run-off areas now and it could be argued that had that corner not been gravel, Alonso's car would not have flipped over. I'm surprised to still see grass and gravel run-off areas in modern F1 circuits.
In other news, hopefully the FIA can do something about the abominable new qualifying rules before the next race.