Now More Than Ever, Auto Safety Must Be Addressed

Author: Heath Davis-Gardner, Technology and Digital Culture Editor | Date: October 20, 2017

Two years ago, for the first time in a decade, there were more traffic fatalities than there had been the previous year. Automobile-related deaths had been on a steady decline for a decade prior to that spike.

Now we know that wasn’t just a blip on the radar — it was the beginning of a new trend.

This month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its tally of deadly vehicle crashes in the USA in 2016. The total was 37,461 lives lost — a 5.6% increase from 2015. In total, the spike that started in 2015 represents a 14.4% surge in traffic deaths. In that same time period, pedestrian deaths have shot up an astonishing 21.9%. This all on the heels of two full decades of declining highway fatality statistics.

All this despite what NHTSA acknowledges as an era where “vehicle safety technology is better than ever,” given the adoption of new safety features and safety-related ADAS systems like automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping warnings.

It’s not the technology’s fault, however. As always, the fatalities can be chalked up to some form of human error. Speeding, failure to wear seat belts, drunk driving, and distraction — in the form of cell phones, as well as other factors — were all among the forms of human error that ended up costing lives. What’s the worst culprit? Regulators say they don’t really know, that there’s no real explanation for why the death toll is increasing.

Bloomberg has just printed an excellent piece positing one possible answer. The article, “Smartphones are Killing Americans, but Nobody’s Counting”, presents an array of data that suggest NHTSA has missed some key trends about smartphones that correlate very closely with the rising fatality numbers — from 2014 to 2016, the share of Americans who owned a smartphone went from 75% to 81%, all while the way Americans were using their phones was changing. We’ve gone from using our phones to talk, which at least allows us to keep our eyes on the road, to texting, checking and updating social media, and other activities that rely on a user actually looking at their phone.

The data presented by Bloomberg is pretty compelling, and they take NHTSA to task for not linking the possibility of mobile phone use to fatalities, only including the fewer than 500 crashes where the phone use was documented. The argument is hard to deny: by NHTSA’s own reporting, drunk driving hasn’t increased nearly enough to explain the spike in fatalities, nor has speeding. The article also includes the findings of a startup called Zendrive Inc., which analyzes smartphone data for the purpose of assessing safety risks for insurance companies. According to Bloomberg, “in a study of 3 million people, it found drivers using their mobile phone during 88 percent of trips. The true number is probably even higher because Zendrive didn’t capture instances were mounted in a fixed position.”

Zendrive’s CEO said to Bloomberg: “It’s definitely frightening. Pretty much everybody is using their phone while driving.”

Frightening indeed.

There is something to be said, of course, for trying to educate drivers via public service announcements and other related forms of outreach to try to curb this rise in distracted driving. But it’s hard to imagine how regulators would be able to keep pace. Phones are becoming more and more powerful, more addictive, more — well, distracting. And especially since a driver who caused an accident while on their phone would have to openly admit to using it to an officer, it seems like a tricky thing to police — and as NHTSA’s statistics seem to suggest, tricky to document as well.

There’s only one real answer to this problem. This trend of increased traffic fatalities is precisely why we need to continue the movement toward autonomous vehicles. We are only on the cusp of what these systems will be able to do. Right now, all safety ADAS features still rely on the driver being fully alert and paying attention. In other words, these systems can help, but they aren’t going to save someone who can’t or won’t focus on the road while they’re driving.

We have heard the numbers plenty of times now, estimates that autonomous vehicles could cut traffic fatalities by 90% or more. But, for many of us, this potential benefit outweighs many of the hypothetical scenarios and predictions that some groups are making: that AVs will increase urban sprawl as more people become comfortable living in suburbs, or that there will be a rough patch where emissions rise a bit because of additional cars on the road (as self-driving taxis come into the economy before the traditional automobile has been phased out). There are arguments against these positions (and as we’ll report soon, much of these externalities can be avoided by a smart approach to urban planning), but even assuming all of those things occur: it’s still worth it if we can save tens of thousands of lives per year.

The Bloomberg piece features the story of Jennifer Smith, whose mother was killed on her way to pick up cat food when a 20-year-old college student, distracted by his mobile phone, ran a red light and broadsided her vehicle. These fatalities aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet. Not only was Smith’s mother killed for senseless and even trivial reasons, other lives were changed forever. Smith’s career was disrupted by the grief of the incident, and the 20-year-old college student will have a massive weight on his conscience for the rest of his life. And that’s just a few of many reverberations from one fatality out of tens of thousands.

The US Congress has made good steps forward lately — which we’ve reported — toward making autonomous vehicle testing easy to do while ensuring safety. But it will take more than just good intentions. We need to use all the resources available, including our USDOT-designated proving grounds, to do everything we can to speed the development of this life-saving technology.

Now more than ever, we need to take action to make mass traffic fatalities a thing of the past. And we can do it by working together, sharing information, learning, and paying attention. We’re ready to do our part — are you?

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