Since 2007, there has been a steady decrease in traffic deaths year over year. A new report by The National Safety Council claims that trend has reversed, with traffic-related deaths dramatically increasing over last year in just the first six months of 2015. What happened?
The last time traffic deaths reached 40,000 in a year was 2007, but 2015 is on a steady pace to surpass that number, hitting just under 19,000 through May, according to U.S. News. With seven months to go, including the two typically heaviest months for fatalities being July and August, things are looking bleak for the American driver.
The question now is why is there such a drastic increase? For one, Americans are driving a lot more this year due to lower gas prices and a slightly better economy. Drivers travelled a collective 1.26 trillion miles over the first five months of the year, an increase from last year’s 1.23 trillion over the same time period. However, a 3.4 percent increase in mileage year over year does not equate to a 14 percent increase in fatalities, so there must be other issues at play.
That’s where it gets confusing, as overall drivers seem to be in a safer position when they hit the roads, as President of the National Safety Council Deborah A.P. Hersman in the report puts it:
In recent decades, deaths due to crashes involving drunken driving have dropped from about 50 percent of fatalities to about 30 percent, she said. Teen driving deaths are also down, and seatbelt use is up. And cars have more safety technology than ever, although drivers sometimes don’t use it or don’t know how to use it, Hersman said.
On the other hand, a growing number of states are raising speed limits, and everywhere drivers are distracted by cellphone calls and text messages. The council estimated in a report this spring that a quarter of all crashes involve cellphone use. Besides fatal crashes, that includes injury-only and property damage-only crashes.
We’ve been over the “speed kills” myth before, but the second one isn’t surprising. The easiest assumption is that drivers are distracted while driving more than ever, not only with their cell phones, but with GPS systems, music players, all those confusing buttons, and even the built in navigational screen now standard in most modern cars. Any amount of time the eyes and the mind spend away from focusing on driving, the dangers for everybody on the road go up. Add more people on the road, traveling more miles, and it get’s out of hand pretty quickly.
Hopefully upcoming features like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto — which shut down a user’s phone when connected to the car, using a simpler format through the car’s controls — start to pull back on some of the dangers of cellphone use in cars. Local law enforcement agencies are also taking steps to try and cut back on distracted driving, even going as far as disguising themselves as homeless people on street corners to watch for red-light text messaging.
When you factor in the sad state of infrastructure around most of the nation, as well as vehicle defects, elderly drivers, bad weather, poor night visibility, substance abuse, and the definitely real random factor, it’s not hard to justify the increasing numbers.
No matter what we do, whether we adapt our society around completely autonomous vehicles, or keep piling up the safety features, the motorist fatality statistic will always exist. But when there is no clear explanation as to why it’s so large, it truly becomes fearful. People dying is a problem you always want to be able to solve.
Stay safe out there, America. Don’t become a statistic.