The numbers are in, and they’re not good. Official sources are saying that the number of road fatalities in the US is up significantly from last year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there was a 10.4 percent increase in deadly car accidents in the first half of 2016 compared to 2015, and 2015 already showed a sharp increase from the year before. The 17,775 person death toll in the first six months of 2016 is a major turn for the worse. But with all the crash protection features in our cars, how are these numbers even possible?
Car and Driver reports that thanks to lower gas prices last year, many more Americans took to the road than in previous years. And while drivers racked up over 3.1 trillion miles of travel in 2015 -a 3.5 percent increase from 2014- the death toll rose by double that amount. So what is going on? Experts agree that using cell-phones while driving probably plays a role in many car accidents. In 2011, the NHTSA reported that about 660,000 drivers were using their smartphones on the road at any given time, and the Pew Research Center points out that more than twice as many Americans own smartphones today as in 2011. Driver distraction is definitely a culprit, but it’s hard to pin down a smartphone as the cause of an accident unless a driver admits to having used it while driving, or if there was a witness to the act. At the same time, despite all the PSAs aired on television over the years, human error in the form of speeding, not wearing seat belts, and impaired and distracted driving is still responsible for 94 percent of crashes. Clearly, something needs to change.
The government agrees. Yesterday, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Safety Council (NSC) formed a partnership called the Road to Zero Coalition, whose ambitious goal is to eliminate all road fatalities in the next 30 years. The group will be funding research to come up with new ways to address the same old problems. Already, the NSC has begun a campaign to educate drivers on how to use the new safety features that are found in cars today. Meanwhile, the DOT has started a conversation with several firms specializing in mapping and mobility analytics about potentially creating models that could identify how variables such as changing economic conditions affect travel choices, and how climate change may increase the likelihood of deadly car crashes in certain areas.
Given the seriousness of the situation, the auto industry is also getting involved. New safety features may become standard in all car models, as twenty automakers have now promised to provide automated emergency braking in all new vehicles beginning in 2022. The adoption of automated cars is also expected to eradicate road fatalities caused by human error, say industry leaders- but that is still years away. Meanwhile, president and CEO of the NSC Deborah Hersman has stated that possibly the greatest driver of these chilling numbers is that we have all simply become too complacent. With one hundred people dying on the roads every day- which works out to the equivalent of 14 regional plane crashes each week- we should really be paying attention.