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ASU professor sets her sights on vehicle safety numbers game

Apr. 20—You probably won't find Dr. Norma Faris Hubele's book in popular bestseller lists or turned into a Netflix movie.

But if you drive a car or truck and cherish your safety and that of your passengers, "Backseat Driver: The Role in Great Car Safety Debates" may be a lot more valuable than "Bridgerton."

The book is all about data — partly about the evolution of federal agencies' use of it to assess vehicles' safety and order a recall or redesign if necessary and partly about how manufacturers use the same numbers to fight them.

An Arizona State University statistics professor emerita as well as co-owner and vice president for quality control in a Chandler company called Refrac System, which her husband Norman founded after leaving corporate life, Faris Hubele is no stranger to that math.

The first director strategic initiatives at ASU's Fulton School of Engineering and now professor emerita, she has steeped herself in data related to car safety and risks for over three decades.

She used that knowledge to create a rating system of vehicles on a free website, theautoprofessor.com. And she has testified as an expert witness in over 120 accident lawsuits.

"With car safety, it's the value we place on every human life that counts," she writes. "But all too often that value has been eclipsed by greed and bureaucracy."

Her book may take on new urgency these days amid a stunning rise in traffic injuries and deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projects 31,785 people died in traffic crashes in the first nine months of last year — a 0.2% decrease from the total fatalities in January-September 2021. But it also reported that the 2021 total deaths marked a 10.5% increase from 2020 and hit a 16-year high.

The Arizona Department of Transportation's 2021 accident review — the most recent published — said 1,180 people died and 51,633 were injured in 121,345 accidents. That was a 22.45% increase over 2020. The 2021 numbers equaled 3.23 traffic deaths and 141 injuries a day in 2021, said ADOT — which called that year the deadliest for Arizona motorists in 14 years.

ADOT also said the economic loss from collisions in 2021 totaled over $20 billion.

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration blames distracted driving as the major contributor to that staggering loss of life, limb and money, "Backseat Driver" looks at an equally significant but little-discussed factor in many traffic deaths and injuries.

It delves into the pitched battles that car manufacturers, safety advocates and lawmakers waged for decades over the way cars and trucks are designed.

Faris Hubele examines those controversies and shows how all sides use the same numbers to argue about recalls, gender inequality in testing and design, the growing gap in vehicle size and, lately, the emergence of driver-assistance systems.

'Data and social progress'

In an age when electric and self-driving vehicles are gaining more attention and market share, Faris Hubele hopes the book will generate a more informed discussion of how safe such cars and trucks really are.

But she admits her book may not be for everyone.

"The target audience is really an educated, inquisitive person — people who like to read and are kind of curious about how we got to where we are," she told AFN.

She likens her book to the way "Moneyball" looked how the 2002 Oakland Athletics up-ended professional baseball's traditional value system for building a team or the way "The Big Short" examined some of the root causes of the housing bubble that triggered the Great Recession.

"This is a book about data and social progress," she writes, noting that in the first half of the 20th century, traffic tragedies weren't even on a national radar. Airplane safety was.

It wasn't until 1951 when a military study found that crashes injured more personnel — and caused longer hospitalizations — than the Korean War that some national attention started to be focused on motor vehicle accidents.

At the same time, an Indiana State Police official began collecting car crash data, leading to a program at Cornell University that started motor vehicle accident injury research.

Such research quickly became a major federal endeavor.

In her introduction, Faris Hubele writes, "You don't need a college-level course in statistics to read this book. You only need a curious mind and appreciation for debating vital issues facing our society."

She said consumers looking to purchase a vehicle need only harken to the discussion — and sometimes heated debates — that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When we were in the middle of COVID," she noted, "there was a lot of discussion about data and whether or not certain preventive measures were effective. Those kinds of conversations are exactly what happens every time they propose a change the way they build cars.

"It's those kinds of conversations that are always in the forefront. And I'm hoping that when somebody reads this book, they hear the news, they start to understand the context of what they're listening to — and some of the changes the industry willingly goes along with, but the majority of changes, they fight tooth and nail."

Carrots and sticks

Faris Hubele said vehicle manufacturers often base their decisions to add a safety feature within a carrot-and-stick environment.

The stick is when the federal government mandates a change while the carrot is a high rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"The carrot is when the Insurance Institute starts espousing the virtues of a particular car," she said, adding manufacturers "voluntarily put in a safety measure that's going to prevent injuries or save lives."

When the federal government orders a redesign of some kind, however, the reaction is markedly different. That's when the war of numbers heats up as both sides turn to the same datasets to make their case.

Faris Hubele became a statistics expert-turned-consumer-advocate over 30 years ago when a consulting firm asked for her help in sorting out some crash data.

"Because I was teaching statistics to engineers, it kind of made sense that I knew the practical applications of data analysis, and I understood the engineering implications of that," she explained.

Over time, she became an expert witness in trials involving injuries or deaths, testifying, justifying and always dissecting the statistics that are being used to typically defend against an injury."

One of her most celebrated cases involved a former Phoenix Police officer, Jason Schectertle, who was severely burned in March 2001 when his patrol car was rammed from behind by a taxi.

He was behind the wheel of a Ford Crown Victoria, the core of police department fleets across the country.

In the 1990s and early part of this century, at least several dozen officers across the country died — including a Chandler police officer — after their Crown Vics collided with other motor vehicles. Countless others were severely burned.

Eventually, Ford stopped manufacturing the vehicles after studies showed the location of its gas tank was the culprit in most of those horrific accidents.

Faris Hubele said the genesis of her new book came after she heard that American Statistics Association and CRC Press had decided to do a statistics and society. Hers is now among 12 books in that series.

New challenges ahead

She said the hardest part in writing her book "was finding the voice because I have an academic background and I wanted to bring it to a level where people will enjoy reading it."

So over the two years she wrote her book, she found actual stories of tragic accidents and layered in professional illustrations to make all the data more impactful for readers.

She hopes the book also leads people to theautoprofessor.com before they buy their next vehicle. "The data that's used throughout my book is the same data that lies behind" the grades her website gives to scores of cars and trucks, she said.

Lately, Faris Hubele is turning her attention to autonomous and electric vehicles.

"Everything about autonomous vehicles is about the data," she notes.

She fears the algorithms that command those vehicles' movements don't necessarily accommodate a variety of purely human factors.

She harkened back to the fatal accident a few years ago in Tempe when an autonomous vehicle fatally struck a pedestrian at night. She theorizes the car's algorithms may not have been able to react properly to a dark figure with a backpack crossing near its path.

She cites Tesla's difficulty in recognizing flashing lights on an emergency vehicle as a similar issue and wonders "if they're going to be able to implement these autonomous vehicles in chaotic environments."

Likewise, electric vehicles concern for Faris Hubele, who notes "they're going to pose bigger risks to people in intersections because they're going to come off the starting line a lot faster than your internal combustion engine.

"I think we're going to see a rise in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities and intersection fatalities," she said..

She believes EV manufacturers "are selling the cars without saying, 'We need to teach you how to drive again' because drivers are going to be coming off the starting line much faster."

Likewise, the propensity of lithium batteries — used extensively in electric vehicles — to blow up and cause stubborn fires suggests a need for more federal scrutiny and regulation, she said.

Such fires she said, "may not show up in fatality statistics because some of those fires are happening in parking lots and homes. Those kinds of statistics don't end up in federal databases."

Faris Hubele believes a reimagined approach is needed for collecting data on lithium battery fires because of "the safety of those batteries and the risks associated with different temperature ranges on those batteries."

And then there's the element of human behavior, especially where autonomous vehicles and other "smart vehicles" are concerned. While they are pitched to appeal to convenience, Hubele wonders if some brakes may need to be applied.

As she said recently in an interview on PBS in response to a question about smart cars and the help they offer drivers:

"It comes down to how much help do people need. What we see is that if we make it too complacent — and that comes down to the Human Factors argument about car safety — if we make them too smart, people start video gaming, watching movies, reading their books.

"And so, you have to reach a balance between getting the driver to stay attentive, and having the car help them in those emergency situations."

The book is available at amazon.com.