Sunday, August 18, 2019
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Now More Than Ever, Auto Safety Must Be Addressed

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.

About the Author
Heath Davis-Gardner is the Technology and Digital Culture Editor for the GTiMA.