Is Cheap Gas Why Traffic Deaths Are Up So Sharply In 2015?

Illustration for article titled Is Cheap Gas Why Traffic Deaths Are Up So Sharply In 2015?

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?

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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.

Also:

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.

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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.

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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.

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Stay safe out there, America. Don’t become a statistic.

DISCUSSION

urambotauro
Urambo Tauro

Driver education in the US is laughably easy to pass. Not only is the initial bar set low, but renewal is based on little more than a vision test. And people tend to relax after obtaining their license; they stop trying hard to be good drivers. Once over the hurdle, they stop putting enough effort into their driving.

Getting a license needs to be harder. This may make it more expensive, but I think it’s worth it. Here in Michigan, passenger cars do not have to pass regular inspections. As a result, we have an abundance of break-downs on the road. The vehicle inspections that other states require seem like a hassle to those of us who are not used to them, but there is a real benefit.

Now what if drivers had to pass an “inspection” every year or two, to prove they were still capable of operating a motor vehicle? For one thing, some of the worst drivers would be weeded out and removed from public roads. This would include elder drivers whose abilities and skills have begun to fade away. Secondly, people would try harder to pass a renewal, if only to avoid paying multiple times for testing.

Driver education needs to be less like kindergarten and more like hands-on SATs.