How safe is safe enough?

I’ve been following the debate over proposed changes to the Hours of Service regulations for trucks for quite some time now.  One bunch wants to cut them back.  Another would keep them as they currently are.  There are probably also some who would like to see them actually increase.  Whoever doesn’t get their way files a lawsuit.  What to do?

The whole debate should be about safety.  It also appears to me that there are some who have other agendas (having nothing at all to do with safety) that they are attempting to further with these regulations.

It really all comes down to where to draw the line.

Let’s first take the case of extreme safety.  Suppose we fit all vehicles with big puffy bumpers.  The slightest touch on any of these bumpers will cause the brakes to instantly apply.  We’ll also cut the speed limit down to five mph.  Driving in other than perfectly clear and dry conditions during daylight hours will be prohibited.  Every vehicle will also have an interlock system that monitors drivers for impairment.  Driving time would be limited to a maximum of 30 minutes per day.

Would that cut crashes?  Probably.  Would it also pretty much kill commerce in this country as we know it?  Almost certainly.

Going to the other extreme, we could eliminate speed limits and HOS regulations, and just let everybody pretty much do as they please.

I’m sure we’d see an increase in crashes (although maybe not as large as you’d think).  It would be all about making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible.

Most of us would probably agree that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes.

Wandering around the internet I came upon this quote:  “Man must exist in a state of balance between risk and safety. Pure risk leads to self-destruction. Pure safety leads to stagnation. In between lies survival and progress.”

I think that pretty much sums it up.

So how do we figure out exactly where to draw the line?  Well, there’s this really cool thing called Science.  Scientists study problems and collect data, and try to come up with solutions.  Absolutely amazing how that works.  The process isn’t perfect, but it mostly manages to make progress.

Solving this particular problem is actually a bit more difficult.  Statistically speaking, crashes and related happenings are quite rare events.  Generally,  they’re quoted as some (small)  number per million miles travelled.  A million miles is a really long way to travel in any kind of vehicle.  Your average motorist will probably only drive around half of that (or less) in a lifetime.  Collecting accurate data about crashes is also quite difficult due to it’s perishable nature and short duration.

Here’s what I think we need to do:

First, we need to have a really large, comprehensive study.  Sensor and digital technology keeps getting cheaper and better.  This would allow full instrumentation of an extremely large number of vehicles for quite a reasonable sum of money.  Much could be piggybacked on existing vehicle systems, further lowering costs.

This study would run for an extended period of time, and would make their raw data available to any researcher asking for it.

The data would be analyzed, conclusions drawn, and papers written.  Peer review would then attempt to resolve conflicting conclusions, weed out the best strategies, and then implement small scale testing.  Successful small scale tests would then be given broader trials.  Cash awards go to the researchers with the most successful results.

Until we take conjecture, politics, and sub-rosa agendas out of the process, we’re unlikely to ever have intelligent and effective safety regulations.


This is an echo of a post I made on



1 comment so far

  1. Mike Bryant on

    As always a very interesting and practical view.

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