How the latest technology can help reduce crashes and road deaths (Q&A)
It’s easy to forget, but driving your car is a potentially deadly activity that most of us do every day.
According to estimates from the National Safety Council, a nonprofit safety advocacy organization, in the U.S., about 35,200 people died in vehicle crashes in 2013, while 3.8 million people had injuries from a crash that required medical attention.
But will new vehicle and road safety technology reduce the number of road deaths?
Leonard Evans is an internationally known traffic safety expert who has been studying, writing and speaking about traffic safety for more than four decades. He also worked for General Motors on many aspects of traffic safety as a research scientist for 33 years.
CarInsuranceQuotes.com asked Evans about traffic deaths in the U.S., what larger cultural changes need to occur to reduce crashes and deaths, and his opinion on self-driving cars.
Q. You say that in the U.S., 20,000 Americans are killed in vehicle crashes each year that don’t need to be. What needs to change?
A. First, we should stop using the word “accident.” It conveys a sense of inevitability, a belief that crashes are fate, and that no one has any real responsibility. You won’t hear this in airline safety. When an airplane crashes, we talk about a crash and it’s investigated to see the human factors that contributed to the event.
Vehicle factors are important. Roadway factors are more important. But 75 years of traffic research shows that by far, the impact of both is minuscule compared with driver behavior.
The widespread use of radar speed detectors and red light cameras, used sensibly, have been proven effective in helping curb crashes. But there’s hostility between traffic safety enforcers and drivers.
It’s a justified hostility because traffic safety enforcement is often used to raise revenue. It’s rare to hear it said that the goal of enforcement is zero tickets, whereas it’s considered a triumph when more speeders are caught. The goal should be the reduction of harm.
Q. How can we reduce traffic accidents and death?
A. What’s needed is a change in emphasis. It must be recognized that preventing traffic crashes and deaths is part of public health. Yet in our society, traffic safety policy is a public health catastrophe. The national debate is about crash test results, air bags and the latest gadgets. In other countries, there’s more balance.
The media, auto and insurance industries focus far too much on vehicles. But again, science clearly shows that traffic safety is mainly about driver behavior. This emphasis is also missing from our laws and from the media.
Q. What can the average driver do to steer clear of accidents and avoid higher car insurance premiums?
A. There are two types of crashes — one is the at-fault one. This is the easiest to avoid. If you obey the traffic laws, you’ll almost never be involved in a crash. Nearly all at-fault crashes involve violating traffic laws.
You can avoid being struck in the rear of your vehicle by refusing to allow anyone to tailgate you. Use your rearview mirror and slow down until the driver goes and punishes someone else. If everyone adopted that philosophy, there’d be no one for the driver to hit!
If possible, allow space around your vehicle. When it comes to driving safely, space is pure gold.
Again, your speed is a crucial factor. Substantial research from many countries shows that the death risk increases greatly with speed. So the faster you drive, the more likely a crash. If you do crash, the faster you’re traveling, the more likely you’ll get injured. And if you’re hit, the faster you were traveling, the more likely you’ll be killed.
Q. What are the safety drawbacks and benefits of self-driving cars when it comes to safety and saving lives?
A. They’re technological marvels. They’ll eventually work very well. Public resistance will eventually fade as it did with the driverless elevator and driverless trains. It’s marvelously impressive.
Q. What are the safety features and drawbacks of self-driving cars?
A. It will be decades before we have large numbers to see how effective they are. Since driver error is the major factor in crashes, it’s a good idea to reduce it as much as possible, if it can be done technologically. If safe driving cars reduce crashes, they’re all for the good. (But) they’re not a cure. And there are a lot of people who will still like to drive.
By 2040, 750,000 Americans (in total) will die on the roads if we persist on our present course. We have a more immediate problem with an already known but rejected solution.