Highway deaths jump; blame texting and better economic times

Traffic deaths in 2015 increased by 8%, the largest increase in 50 years reports the National Safety Council. The number of traffic deaths jumped by 10.4% in the first six months of this year -- 17,775 deaths from January to June. 

The preliminary estimate was released by the government's highway safety agency, and at least one of the culprits is likely the rising instance of texting while driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which compiled the report, said the second quarter of 2016 was the seventh consecutive quarter that fatalities rose compared to the same quarter the previous year.

The agency did not cite specific causes other than a 3.3% increase in number of miles driven, but data compiled by the National Safety Council shows texting while driving is a factor. 

The percentage of drivers texting or manipulating handheld devices increased from 0.9% in 2010 to 2.2% in 2014. For drivers between ages 16 and 24, that rate jumps to 4.8% and young women are more likely to text than their male counterparts, NSC research shows.

"We don’t know all the causality behind the increase yet, but you can add in factors like distraction even though 46 states have laws prohibiting texting while driving," said Deborah Hersman, CEO of the National Safety Council.

Failure to buckle up remains a large problem. Half of all those who died nationally were unbelted, NSC research show.

U.S. residents are driving more miles because of an improved economy and relatively low gas prices. But the 3.3% increase in miles driven, according to the Federal Highway Administration, is smaller than the corresponding increase in traffic deaths.

History shows that traffic deaths decline during recessions and tend to rise as the economy strengthens.

Automakers are introducing technologies that enable parents to monitor the driving habits of their teenagers and modulate volume of audio systems, but there are no options launched yet that deactivate a smartphone when a vehicle is moving.

Both automakers and wireless service providers want people to use their phones in the vehicle.

Safety regulators are looking more closely at the role of phones and telecommunication providers, but so far NHTSA has not adopted any restrictions of phone use in the vehicle.

The service providers acknowledge phone use can be addictive, but they are not excited about technology that would prohibit phone use by a driver.

"Some of the features that give parents information about how their young drivers operate the car are helpful, but automakers also ought to shut off certain infotainment systems," Hersman said, adding that voice-activation software isn't as safe as automakers and telecommunication providers are touting. "People think when they’re hands free that they are making a safe choice and data doesn’t show that to be true."

The New York Times reported last month that Apple was granted a patent in 2014 for technology that could lock a phone by using sensors to detect the phone was moving and used by a driver. Such a system could prevent functions such as texting.

In its patent application Apple stated that “texting while driving has become so widespread that it is doubtful that law enforcement will have any significant effect on stopping the practice.”

Wednesday's NHTSA report comes three months after it disclosed that traffic deaths rose 7.7% in 2015, the first annual increase since 2012.

The fatality data was released as NHTSA, the National Safety Council, the FHA and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are launching an initiative called the Road to Zero coalition with the goal of ending fatalities on the nation’s roads within the next 30 years.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has committed $1 million a year for the next three years to provide grants to organizations working on lifesaving programs.

Federal and state safety regulators want to encourage safe ways to introduce semi-autonomous features. Last this month, NHTSA released preliminary guidelines for autonomous vehicle technology, but it will rely heavily on automakers, software companies and suppliers in determining specific rules and standards.

In March, the DOT and automakers agreed to require all new vehicles by 2022 to have automatic emergency braking as standard equipment. Lane-departure alerts and more acute blind-spot detection are gradually making their way into the high-volume market segments.

DOT is working to require vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems on new vehicles, a technology which could help drivers avoid or mitigate 70% to 80% of crashes involving unimpaired drivers. That is significantly different from promoting fully autonomous transportation where occupants pay no attention to where the vehicle is going.

The government also is working with researchers on technologies that would prevent drunken drivers from activating a car's ignition. Drunken driving is responsible for nearly one-third of highway deaths.

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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