For as long as Americans have been driving cars, doing so has been acknowledged to come with a risk. For more than a century, that risk has been accepted as the trade-off for the convenience of getting where we want to go, when we want to go there.
That trade-off seems to be turning into a sour deal. Even as cars are being increasingly made safer, people are dying in crashes — since 2000, more than died in World War I and World War II combined, according to recent numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
From the start of 2000 to the end of 2017, the NHTSA says, more than 624,000 people have died in car wrecks. And more than 30 million were injured.
Those numbers, while scary, actually represent a decline in traffic-death rates from previous decades. The rate of deaths per 100,000 Americans has been steadily falling since 1969.
We have to wonder, though, how much worse the rate would be if not for significant advances in auto safety technology. In the past two decades, spurred largely by insurers incentivizing safety equipment, carmakers have added air bags at nearly every conceivable angle for drivers and passengers. They’ve strengthened the walls of doors, tempered glass and improved safety belts. Rear-facing back-up cameras are now pretty much standard. Alarms have been added to alert drivers when someone isn’t buckled up, if they seem to be nodding off, when they’ve veered out of a lane or when another vehicle approaches a blind spot.
However, all that goes for naught when someone traveling 70 mph decides to answer a text while behind the wheel, or leans over too long adjusting the built-in navigation system, or starts scrolling through a playlist on the in-dash infotainment system.
A 2015 study by the American Automobile Association found drivers using phones played a part in 58 percent of teen traffic deaths, and that in those incidents, the driver’s attention was on the device for an average of more than 4 of the final 6 seconds before the crash. That’s a factor that didn’t even exist in automobile crashes two decades earlier.
The incidence of smartphone-related deaths — not only among teens, mind you — became bad enough that in 2015, New Hampshire joined those states that had already enacted “handheld devices” driving laws, banning the use of any electronic device that doesn’t operate hands-free.
We understand the “nanny state” argument that government is intruding into too many areas of our lives. For years, we argued that laws targeting cellphone use by drivers were unnecessary since the state already had distracted-driving laws on the books. But the statistics kept climbing until it was evident mobile devices pose a far greater distraction than eating, smoking or conversing with passengers. The correlation became too great to ignore.
A year later, we asked local law enforcement officers how the new law was going and were told largely they’d been issuing warnings instead of actually ticketing drivers. The idea, they said, was to let people know about the law, rather than take them to task over it right away. We don’t know if that approach has changed, but an observant traveler is still likely to see drivers using cellphones regularly in traffic. To rein in distracted driving, the law needs to be rigorously enforced.
Consider the very complicated nature of driving — it may seem easy, even routine to some, but it’s so complex, in fact, that it requires a license and a test of competence to even gain the privilege.
The more distractions that are added to vehicles themselves — whether meant to entertain us, assist us or inform us — and the more distracted we become by our devices, conversations or wandering, fatigued minds, the more dangerous driving becomes.
Until the point at which our vehicles really do drive themselves — the NHTSA sets human error as the cause of about 94 percent of all crashes — the danger is going to be there regardless of how much technology is added to keep us safe.