The Wall Street Journal notes that traffic fatalities have increased after years of declines, and it’s not just because more people are driving further.
The U.S. logged more than 17,700 traffic fatalities in the first six months of 2016 in the U.S., regulators estimated. The increase recorded between January and June far outpaces the 3.3% increase in miles traveled on American roads over the same period, according the Federal Highway Administration.
They raise the concern that distraction is a big factor.
While drunken driving is historically a big culprit for traffic fatalities, motorists are also inundated with more technology in the car cabin and use of smartphones by drivers remains a concern for regulators….Among drivers 15 to 19 years old, 10% involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted, according to NHTSA research. That is the largest proportion among age groups distracted at the time of crashes. Drivers in their 20s, meanwhile, represent 24% of those in fatal crashes, but are 29% of distracted drivers and 39% of distracted drivers using cell phones.
North of the border in Canada, distracted driving has passed impaired driving as a cause of automotive fatalities. Many Canadian provinces have brought in new laws about distracted driving; Lina Ko writes in Boomerwatch:
British Columbia and Ontario have banned the use of hand-held communications and electronic entertainment devices while driving. Alberta expands its legislation beyond hand-held electronic devices to include other forms of driver distraction, including eating, drinking, reading, writing and personal grooming. Fines for distracted driving currently range from up to $145 and four demerit points in Quebec to $579 in Nova Scotia and up to $1,000 and three demerit points in Ontario. In B.C., a ticket for a first offence is $543 and $888 for the second offence, with four demerit points.
She notes that New York State is considering “Textalyzer” legislation that would allow Police to scan phones during roadside tests. “The technology is the digital equivalent of the breathalyzer tests used on drunk drivers, enabling cops to detect whether drivers were texting or posting on Facebook while driving.”
The smart phone manufacturers could also make it difficult to use a phone while the car was moving- they all have accelerometers and GPS now. Matt Richtel writes in the New York Times that the manufacturers could “deploy technology that takes the decision out of drivers’ hands altogether.”
“The technology exists — we just don’t have the stomach to implement it,” said Deborah Hersman, the president of the National Safety Council. “Technology got us into this situation. Technology will get us out,” she said. However, she added, “We’re so afraid to tell people what they should do that you can kind of get away with murder under these conditions.”
It might not be so simple though. I text all the time in the car- when my wife is driving. Though perhaps Apple has figured this out; apparently as part of a Texas lawsuit,
…lawyers who brought the suit had unearthed a fascinating document: a patent filing that Apple made in 2008, which the lawyers said was granted in 2014, for technology that would “lock out” a driver’s phone by using sensors to determine if the phone was moving and in use by a driver. If so, it would prevent certain functions, like texting. In the patent, Apple says such technology is necessary because: “Texting while driving has become so widespread that it is doubtful that law enforcement will have any significant effect on stopping the practice,” and “Teens understand that texting while driving is dangerous, but this is often not enough motivation to end the practice.”
But you cannot single out the phone manufacturers alone. I wrote in a previous post that there is more to it; our cars are turning into distraction factories with their giant displays and audio options, competing with our smart phones. There are more cyclists and pedestrians to hit as our cities densify. The population is aging, which affects the speed at which people cross, their vision and hearing, whether they live or die and how quickly they recover. There are also other distractions like those listed in that wonderful Alberta legislation: “eating, drinking, reading, writing and personal grooming.”
The real problem is our inability to wrap our brains around the scale of this problem: 17,700 Americans dead because of cars in just six months. That's like three planes falling out of the sky every week. It is huge, and it is almost totally ignored. If it was taken seriously, and if cars were treated like any other consumer product unprotected by constitutional amendments, cars would simply be banned as a defective product that are too complex for humans to handle.
The real answer is to take a Vision Zero approach, slow drivers down and fix our roads, because people will always be distracted. To prioritize humans over cars. And of course, give people alternatives to driving. Because 17,700 is an extraordinary number.