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Safe driving dependent on 3 parts: car, road, driver

Consumer Reports had an interesting article, asking the question can we save more lives with advances in safety technology that is reshaping the auto industry. CR questions why the highway death toll is still so stubbornly high. Good question.

As the CR article continues, it makes it clear that there are three parts to safety: the car, the road, and the driver.

The cars

We are doing an excellent job using technology to develop crash-avoidance safety features in cars, such as automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, forward collision warning and blind spot warning. CR believes that these safety systems should become standard on all models because they save lives. But with every new safety feature there is a corresponding negative side. Drivers may rely too heavily on what they perceive as the ability of the technology to bail them out of trouble.

The promise of self-driving cars is so exciting because the technology could significantly reduce traffic deaths. More than 90% of crashes are linked to driver error, according to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. In theory, a robot-driven car doesn’t fall asleep or get drunk. It doesn’t make human mistakes.

The roads

A poorly designed road can escalate a small error into a fatality. Traffic engineers know that a minor change in the sweep of a curve or an unclear road sign can have an impact on safety. For this reason, dozens of cities in the U.S. are completely rethinking road design with safety top of mind.

In the U.S., there are about 12 roadway deaths per 100,000 people per year, according to the World Health Organization. In much of Western Europe, it’s fewer than five. In Sweden, it’s less than three. Some communities are changing their street design and traffic laws. In 2014 New York was one of the first cities in the U.S. to adopt the Vision Zero concept, which calls for city planners to rethink everything about roads, bike lanes and pedestrian routes. The goal is to eliminate all vehicle-related deaths.

Speed limits also play a key role in road safety, yet outside of cities, the trend has been to set them higher. During the 1970s energy crisis, the U.S. adopted a nationwide 55 mph limit. Now most states have a speed limit of 65 or 70 mph on highways. Seven states have adopted an 80 mph speed limit on some highways, and the speed limit is 85 mph on a 40-mile stretch of Texas tollway between Austin and San Antonio.

The driver

Motorists have become used to driving faster than the posted speed limit no matter the number, says Russ Martin, director of policy and government relations at the Governors Highway Safety Association. Even though almost everyone recognizes that speeding isn’t safe, they do it anyway.

It’s no mystery that driver mistakes contribute to highway crashes and injuries. Drunken driving, speeding and failing to wear a seat belt are three major reasons. Sometimes drivers engage in more than one of these risky behaviors at the same time. Each contributes to about 10,000 traffic deaths per year. Human behavior remains the most common contributor to crashes, but it’s also the hardest to change.

Safety advocates say the solutions are well known. Seat belt use, for example, is higher in states with strong enforcement. States with tougher drunken-driving laws have lower death rates. Most states ban driver texting and the use of handheld devices while driving, but many drivers do it anyway.

Many drivers think they can multitask while operating a car safely. But National Transportation Safety Board research shows that’s a myth; humans can focus cognitive attention only on one thing at a time, says Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the NTSB. “We try to fix human nature here, but that’s really hard.”

Hard or not, we need to do it.

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