Every day millions of Americans get behind the wheel of a 4,000 pound machine. A machine that is responsible for the deaths of 38,000 people a year. Any guesses what it is?
Your car is as safe as it’s ever been. Every vehicle on the road is a miracle of ultra-high strength materials and impressive computing power, working together to protect you like a cocoon as you drive.
So why then are traffic deaths surging? According to data from the National Highway Administration, vehicle deaths rose 17% from the summer of 2019 until 2021. That was the largest two-year increase since the 1940s.
The answer isn’t engineering. There’s not a tech solution that can solve this issue. The real problem is psychology — we’ve grown too complacent behind the wheel.
In this chart you can see that in 2020 motor vehicle death rates started to trend upwards after decades of decrease.
The weak link
In the early days of the Internet, customer support workers developed an acronym, PEBKAC, which stood for Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair. It was shorthand for user error. There was nothing wrong with the computer; it was the user who was clueless.
In today’s driving environment, that acronym could be modified to PEBSWAS: Problem Exists Between Steering Wheel and Seat. We have found the weak link in the chain, and it is us.
Maybe not you, exactly, but certainly that guy ahead of you who’s texting and driving, or the woman who just ran that red light while hurrying to get to work.
Don’t take it so hard. It’s not entirely our fault. Cars have only been around for about 150 years, not nearly long enough for our brains to develop a healthy evolutionary fear of them. After hundreds of thousands of years, we’re instinctively scared of heights and snakes and bears, but we’re not yet scared of cars.
Traffic deaths had been declining since the late 1960s, but they saw the most significant two-year increase in 70 years between 2019 and 2021. This is despite a decrease in total miles logged, due to the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020. The decline in driving was actually accompanied by an increase in aggressive driving. Crashes only continued to grow as people returned to the roads later in the pandemic.
In many cases, these driving deaths can be linked to an increase in erratic and risky behavior, according to a report by the Department of Transportation. These behaviors include speeding, running red lights, not wearing seat belts, distracted driving and driving under the influence.
One reason for the increase in accidents and traffic deaths is because people are taking more risks and also acting more aggressively on the road.
In 2021, The Zebra released a study on road rage that found that aggressive driving is becoming both more commonplace and more dangerous. The survey found that 8 out of 10 drivers admitted to aggressive driving and 90% of people had witnessed it.
The consequences of anger on the road can be deadly. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, the number of road rage-related fatal crashes rose almost 500% over 10 years, from 80 to 467.
Lack of attention is also a major culprit. In January of 2021, The Zebra reached out to drivers to understand their habits behind the wheel and found that more than half reported they eat while driving and a quarter admit to texting while driving.
First, we’re terrible at assessing how risky a particular activity is. Instead of looking up verified data, we rely on what we read and watch, which is often sensationalistic.
We’re bad at paying attention. Our minds naturally wander, and we’re easily distracted. You might think that you’re doing better by using voice commands for your phone while you sit at a stoplight. But once you look up and focus on traffic again, it takes almost 30 seconds for your brain to reorient and resume processing what you’re seeing.
And we’re relentlessly positive thinkers. We naturally welcome thoughts of a positive outcome and skip the evidence in support of a negative one. Have you ever been tempted to not wear your seatbelt because you were only going a few blocks? Short trips are all intersections, and intersections are among the most common places for deadly accidents.
Technology gets better. We get worse.
Part of the problem, ironically, is that as safety technology in cars gets better, we, as drivers, may be getting worse. Studies at MIT indicate that increasing automation can make drivers overestimate their safety and feel comfortable indulging in other activities behind the wheel. According to the CDC, approximately eight people die and more than 1,000 are injured each day in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver. In Texas in 2020, nearly one in five crashes on Texas roads were caused by a distracted driver.
One of the worst culprits in distracted driving is multitasking. MIT research scientist Bobbie Seppelt is part of one of the longest-running studies of driver attention. Beginning in 2015, Seppelt and her colleagues outfitted a set of Teslas, Volvos and Range Rovers with cameras that tracked the driver’s head, eye, and body movements to better understand what might lead to a crash.
Seppelt also found that safe driving technology seems to affect people in two different ways. One group explored the limits of the safety systems, including taking their hands away from the wheel for extended periods. A second group stopped using the driver assistance technology altogether. They distrusted the software so much that they, in essence, declined to take advantage of those safety features.“We’re quite busy when we drive,” said Seppelt, who has seen countless scenes of eating, drinking, grooming, button-pushing and more from drivers who knew they were being filmed. “It’s about 40-60 percent of the time that we’re doing something in addition to operating the vehicle.”
In 2021, Seppelt now works as a Human Factors Engineer for Ford meaning she uses her research to help the company design devices and machine systems that work well with how humans behave rather than forcing humans to adapt to unrealistic design.
So what can we do?
How do we as a driving society conquer our lousy behavior on the road? Both Seppelt and Casner agree that education is our best bet. Just as we’ve managed to make recycling cool and smoking not cool, we need public service messages and emotional videos that help us upgrade the way we think about what’s risky and what’s safe in a modern world filled with distracting gadgets and fast cars and plenty of stressors.
In the 1980s, public pressure changed our country’s attitudes toward drinking and driving. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was formed in 1980 and by 1988, every state had raised the minimum drinking age to 21. In comparison, distracted driving has actually moved more quickly than drunk driving in gaining awareness and legislation. Since wireless companies launched the “It Can Wait” campaign in 2013, more than 40 million people have taken an online pledge to drive distraction-free. In that same time, 48 states have banned text messaging for all drivers.
But laws are difficult to enforce, and the punishments remain inconsistent. We are quite busy when we drive. According to a study by Zendrive, which uses smartphone data to analyze driving behavior, drivers use their smartphones in nearly 9 out of every 10 trips and are on their phones for 3.5 minutes of every hour on the road.
Increasing awareness and changing behaviors
Campaigns like It Can Wait have increased awareness that texting while driving is dangerous, but haven't done much to stop it. "We have achieved peak awareness, but what we have not achieved is peak behavior," AT&T's Ryan Luckey said. "As technology has gotten more sophisticated and engaging, the issue we're dealing with is changing behavior, and nearly 9 out of 10 people are still doing it."
In terms of aggressive driving, the problem is usually more with the individual, but also made worse by stressors. High-anger drivers are naturally more on edge and more likely to respond to normal road stressors (like traffic slow-downs, congestion, aggression from other drivers) with anger. The pandemic has introduced additional stress into people’s lives which is perhaps why aggressive driving has gone up even as overall driving has gone down. The key to curbing aggressive driving is for high-anger drivers to learn coping skills to help reframe negative events and stressors on the road.
The next revolution
While we’re waiting for that societal behavior change, there are other steps that might help, too, like standardizing the names of features with more realistic descriptions. One of the most popular new systems is driver-assist technology, which automates some driving tasks and can help to quickly bring the car to a stop in emergency situations. But with names like Autopilot or ProPilot Assist, is it any wonder that people often assume this means a fully-automated ride?
Technology could lend a hand, too, using onboard cameras that watch the driver for signs of inattention or distractedness, or with adaptive information displays that remove clutter as drivers are under increasing demand to help ensure they keep their eyes on the road. There are even technologies that claim to help soothe driving stressors to prevent road rage.
But none of those are better than spending even a few minutes talking to the dealer before you leave the lot or reading the owner’s manual to learn how your car helps keep you safe.
“The next revolution in safety,” Casner said, “has to happen in our own minds.”
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