Lights, sirens, cuts, scrapes, dents, dings—sometimes more. If it seems worse here than most anywhere else, that’s because it is. Among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester are all in the top 10 for car accidents.
And the season for fender-benders has just begun. Iffy weather, increased volume, and the hustle and bustle of the holidays make for challenging conditions and dangerous drivers. In fact, more accidents occur around Thanksgiving than any other holiday. There were 4,352 statewide during that weekend in 2010. The holiday with the next highest number: July 4 (3,051).
“The Monday after Thanksgiving, our lot is packed, and we have a long list of cars waiting to be towed,” says Debbie Bruton, a local appraiser at Classic Coachwork. “It’s one of our busiest days of the year.”
What’s mostly to blame? “Distracted driving,” says Dave Niestroy, owner of 3D Collision Centers.
According to PennDOT, distracted driving now causes more accidents than alcohol and is second only to speeding. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cites three types of driver distractions: visual (eyes away from the road), manual (hands away from the steering wheel), and cognitive (mind away from driving). Talking on a cell phone involves two of those things—dialing a cell phone or texting includes all three.
Texting while driving is the easiest to avoid and the most difficult to defend. It’s also illegal. But many of us haven’t stopped texting while we drive—we’re hiding it instead. “People hold their phones down below the dashboard, out of view,” says Officer John Collins of Lower Merion Township’s traffic safety unit. “That takes their eyes even farther from the road and creates even more dangerous situations.”
Why do we even take the risk? “People overestimate their driving skills and underestimate the effect texting has on them,” Collins says. “They believe that they can do both.”
Bruton hears it all the time. “They say, ‘I’m good at texting and driving because I can text without looking at my phone,’” she says. “Of course, they’re saying this as they’re bringing in their car with dents and dings.”
Intersections are a common location for such accidents. “We have a lot of people say they were at a stoplight and looked in their rearview mirror to see a car coming at them, and the drivers had their heads down,” Bruton says. “They knew they’d be hit, but there was nothing for them to do and nowhere for them to go.”
Lower Merion’s accident hot spot may come as no surprise to anyone who lives there. It’s the area bordered by Montgomery and Lancaster avenues, North and East Wynnewood roads, and Church Road. It includes Lower Merion High School, plus the Wynnewood and Wynnewood West shopping centers. There were a startling 56 crashes—basically one per week—in that small area last year.
It’s the same thing at businesses and shopping centers up and down Lancaster Avenue. Bruton sees it herself from Classic Coachwork in Wayne. “There’s a Starbucks just down the road, and at least once a month, I see cars hit each other as they pull in and out of the parking lot,” she says. “You’d think people would have mastered the skills of pulling out of parking lots, and turning left and right at intersections.”
Tredyffrin Township’s Kreg Isleib pinpoints Lancaster Avenue, and also East Swedesford and West Valley roads. “They have multiple lanes, with shopping centers exiting onto them,” says Isleib, an officer with the traffic safety unit. “Those secondary roads also have changes in elevation—hills, crests and valleys—and a lot of turns. All that creates sight-distance issues. Add to that a driver who is texting, turning on music, reaching for a coffee cup, and you increase the likelihood of a crash.”
Then there’s the first snowfall of the season. “Perishable driving skills,” says Collins. “People forget how to drive safely in snow—even over the course of a year. They overestimate their abilities and underestimate the effect of the weather. It’s the same sort of thing with rain and wet roadways.”
Drivers don’t slow down, Collins says, and they don’t back up. “On a wet roadway, you have to increase the distance between your car and the car in front of you,” he says. “In good weather, it’s the two-second rule, meaning it should take you two seconds to stop before you hit the car in front of you. In wet weather, that should double to four seconds.”
For Dave McArdle, location head of 3D Collision in Haverford, fall and early spring are the busiest times of the year. “That’s when the weather changes,” he says. “And that’s when the deer come out.”
A sizable problem indeed. “During October, November and December, we get clobbered with deer-related accidents,” says Bruton.
In Tredyffrin Township, there were 145 such accidents in 2010—126 in 2011. “I’ve had to put down a lot of them, right there at the scene. An injured animal could get up and cause another accident,” says Isleib. “If it’s hit the deer or hit a tree, hit the deer. Trees don’t move. Deer do.”