An article (“Safer Passage”) in the latest issue of Time has shows that the fatality rate from driving has dropped a lot over the years. Here is a description of the issue:
America’s roadways are safer than ever. The latest data show that traffic fatalities are at their lowest level since 1949 and that the death rate based on miles traveled is the lowest in history. But technologies such as active safety systems and advanced air bags are being offset by auto safety’s newest enemy: distracted drivers using electronic devices behind the wheel.
“We lost over 3,000 in 2010 to distraction-related crashes,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland says. “It’s a heightened risk to the public, and it’s growing exponentially.”
Some of the statistics cited in the story:
1. In 1950, there were 7.2 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 2010, the rate is 1.1. While Americans might be driving more on average today than in 1950 (I couldn’t find figures on this), the fatalities while driving has dropped nearly sevenfold.
2. Here is what causes traffic fatalities: 32% killed by drunk driving, 31% by speeding, 16% by distraction, and 11% by bad weather. It is interesting that much of the current debate about making driving safer deals with cell phones and distractions (see a recent article from the Chicago Tribune about new efforts in Illinois) while it is the third biggest threat. Perhaps policymakers could argue that getting rid of distractions if the cheapest or easier route compared to dealing with the first two issues.
3. According to this CDC report, there were 36,216 deaths in 2009 in motor vehicle accidents for a death rate of 11.8 per 100,000 Americans.
Americans seem willing to accept some risk in driving and generally welcome efforts to make cars safer. And the numbers have gone down quite a bit since 1950: driving is safer. At the same time, the fight over cell phones in cars is just heating up and we need more data to know whether cell phones are more distracting than other features found during driving (passengers, fiddling with the radio/GPS devices, talking to passengers, tiredness). In the end, this may be an odd costs-benefits tradeoff: restricting cell phone use may limit deaths but some will argue that too much is being given up (assuming that only others get in accidents while using cell phones?). Of course, one solution is to simply go to driverless cars but there are other hurdles to overcome there.