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What's Driving the Massive Surge in Traffic Deaths?

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 9/1/2016 Pete Bigelow

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For the better part of a year, Mark Rosekind has sounded the alarm on the rising carnage on America’s roads. In speeches delivered before audiences of automotive executives, transportation officials, and safety advocates, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has warned of a spike in traffic fatalities and repeatedly equated the weekly toll on U.S. roads to the crash of a Boeing 747 on a weekly basis.

Research

Sadly, that comparison is now outdated.

The latest traffic-fatality figures released this week show that 35,092 people were killed on public roads in 2015, an average of 672 every week, which is beyond the capacity of the jumbo jet in its highest-passenger configuration.

That Rosekind must now revise one of his most grim talking points is indicative of the surge in traffic deaths occurring across the country. The latest annual statistics represent a 7.2-percent increase from the 32,744 recorded in 2014, the fastest one-year rise in a half-century. Not since an 8.1-percent increase from 1965 to 1966 has there been such a spike.

"If we don’t accept that 35,000 people dying is a given, maybe we can change behavior a little bit and make things safer next year.”

—David Cole

There have been warning signs. Deaths for pedestrians and bicyclists had been on the upswing of late, while the numbers for vehicle occupants ticked downward thanks to the introduction of new technologies like airbags, electronic stability control and, more recently, automated emergency braking systems. But now, the rising figures include almost all types of road users.

According to the latest data, the number of fatalities among SUV occupants jumped 10.1 percent from 2014. The number of fatalities in van occupants increased 9.3 percent. For passenger-car occupants, it was a 5.7-percent increase and for pickup-truck occupants, a 4.7-percent increase. Meanwhile, things got even worse for what are termed "vulnerable road users." Pedestrian fatalities jumped 9.5 percent to 5376 and bicyclist fatalities spiked more than 12 percent to 818; both cases represent levels not seen in two decades. Motorcyclist fatalities increased by 8.3 percent to 4976, the highest number in four years.

On Monday, the across-the-board spikes prompted an unprecedented “call to action” from the White House, and the Department of Transportation released its annual figures three months earlier than usual in hopes of drawing more attention to the sharp reversal in what had been long-term trends over decades toward safer roads.

“We are in a bad place,” Rosekind (shown below) said last month in San Francisco. “This is a bad situation, and we should be desperate for new tools that will help us save lives.”

MIAMI, FL - JULY 15: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind stands with law enforcement officers as he speaks during a press conferences to highlight the need for Florida consumers to check if their vehicle is affected by recalls of defective Takata air bag inflators on July 15, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Mr. Rosekind wants those affected to have repairs completed as quickly as possible since ruptured Takata inflators are believed responsible for eight deaths, including a 2014 fatality in Orlando, Florida. Because heat and humidity are significant factors in the risk of inflator rupture, Florida vehicle owners are especially at risk. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)© Provided by Car and Driver MIAMI, FL - JULY 15: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind stands with law enforcement officers as he speaks during a press conferences to highlight the need for Florida consumers to check if their vehicle is affected by recalls of defective Takata air bag inflators on July 15, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Mr. Rosekind wants those affected to have repairs completed as quickly as possible since ruptured Takata inflators are believed responsible for eight deaths, including a 2014 fatality in Orlando, Florida. Because heat and humidity are significant factors in the risk of inflator rupture, Florida vehicle owners are especially at risk. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Role of Smartphones Still Unclear

A bustling economy and cheap fuel prices explain part of the increase. With the unemployment rate remaining under 5 percent in July, according to the latest Department of Labor statistics, more people are commuting to jobs and earning money that gets spent on, among other things, road trips. Gas prices are averaging $2.22 per gallon across the country, according to AAA’s daily Fuel Gauge Report, about 16 percent lower than 2015 levels.

“With gas prices just above $2 per gallon versus almost $4 two years ago, now you have the freedom to do whatever you want as long as you have the time,” says Penn State University associate professor of rural sociology and demography Guangqing Chi, who foresaw the rise in traffic deaths. In research published last year, he raised the prospect of a worst-case scenario 27-percent increase in deaths if gas prices continued to plummet.

But as an explanation, good jobs and cheap fuel only go so far. The Federal Highway Administration says the overall number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased to 3.148 trillion in 2015, a 3.5-percent uptick from the previous year; that’s about half the death-rate increase. How to explain the remainder? Cell-phone use behind the wheel would seem to be one obvious answer—spend five minutes watching the actions of drivers along any street in America and you’ll see a number of drivers with their attention focused on their smartphones.

"Our complacency is killing us.”

—Deborah A.P. Hersman

Back in 2011, NHTSA found that at any given moment, approximately 660,000 drivers are using their smartphones while driving. The number of smartphones owned by Americans has almost doubled in the meantime, according to the Pew Research Center. But how the proliferation of smartphones ties into traffic fatalities remains unknown. Law enforcement often lacks the technical resources and expertise needed to investigate smartphone use in crashes, and state-by-state differences in how crash information is collected can complicate attempts at the federal level to pinpoint the role of smartphones in the death spike.

“Weaknesses in crash data make it especially difficult to tie smartphone use, or any other form of driver distraction, to a given crash,” said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “Unless a driver admits to such behavior or there are witnesses to justify a warrant to obtain phone records, for example, crashes that involve driver distraction are hard to document.”

Montana, Pondera County, Crosses On Highway 89. (Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)© Provided by Car and Driver Montana, Pondera County, Crosses On Highway 89. (Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

Using Big Data to Visualize the Problem

If technology is part of the problem, it may also be part of the solution. New safety features are arriving in the marketplace. Twenty automakers have pledged to offer automated emergency braking as standard equipment in all new cars starting in 2022, and the leaders of the self-driving car movement believe that autonomous technology will help eliminate the 94 percent of accidents that are currently caused by human mistakes or behavior. Rosekind himself said in June that he expected self-driving cars to cut the death rate in half.

Beyond those advances, the government is hoping to use technology to better understand patterns and trends in the fatality data. As part of its efforts to thwart the increase, the Department of Transportation has reached out to at least four providers of mapping and mobility analytics—StreetLight Data, Mapbox, CARTO, and Waze—that may develop models that identify everything from how improving economic conditions change travel modes to how climate change might increase the risk of fatal crashes in particular communities.

Mapbox, a global provider of mapping platforms for developers, has past experience working in the fleet analytics and other aspects of the transportation realm, and the company’s engineers and cartographers are helping others visualize the geography of traffic deaths. They’ve created a map on which users can enter their commutes, see the fatal crashes that occurred along their routes between 2011 and 2015, and toggle between additional information on alcohol involvement, speeding, and types of road users.

Traffic-fatalities-Mapbox© Provided by Car and Driver Traffic-fatalities-Mapbox

“It’s been about how we could tell this story in a real local and personal way,” says David Cole, a software engineer at Mapbox. “It’s designed to show people where the fatalities are in their neighborhoods and whether things are getting better or worse. We wanted to make it a personal story instead of an impersonal spreadsheet. This is a real, visceral data set when you open it and see where people are getting killed on your daily route. If we don’t accept that 35,000 people dying is a given, maybe we can change behavior a little bit and make things safer next year.”

Small changes in behavior could make a big difference. As much as advanced technologies offer promising solutions, so do simple ones. Take for instance, the seat belt. Though only 11.5 percent of motorists report not using seat belts in 2015, according to NHTSA, almost half of all vehicle occupants killed in crashes—48 percent—were unbelted. Alcohol-impaired driving was involved in 29 percent of all fatalities, per the NHTSA statistics, a 3.2 percent year-over-year increase that was more in line with the overall increase in VMT than the death-rate spike.

Getting Worse Before Getting Better

For now, the death toll is continuing to mount. Although the data isn’t final yet, the National Safety Council projects that motor-vehicle deaths are 9 percent higher through the first six months of 2016 beyond the increases just announced by the federal government. Since January, the NSC says 19,100 people have been killed on U.S. roads.

Since the start of the upward trend, which occurred late in 2014, some states have been hit particularly hard. Deaths are up 43 percent in Florida, according to the NSC data, and big increases in Georgia (34 percent), Indiana (33 percent), and California (31 percent) also have been logged.

The organization, which launched a campaign to teach drivers the basics about the new safety features now found in vehicles, projects that 438 people will be killed on U.S. roads over the upcoming Labor Day weekend. If correct, that would make it the deadliest stretch over the holiday in eight years.

While the NSC outlines the same factors as others—distracted driving, drowsy driving, excessive speeds—there’s one that Deborah A.P. Hersman, the group’s president and CEO and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, lists as another factor: a collective shrug of the shoulders from the general public. “One-hundred deaths every day should outrage us,” she said. “Our complacency is killing us.”

What's Driving the Massive Surge in Traffic Deaths?© Pete Bigelow What's Driving the Massive Surge in Traffic Deaths?

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