For many, Labor Day weekend meant the official end to summer. As many of us spent one last family weekend at the beach or hosted one more barbeque with friends, other families received the tragic news that they lost a loved one in a motor vehicle crash. If the past is any guide, the large number of people travelling on our roadways this past weekend meant an increase in the number of injuries and deaths caused by crashes. Many of these crashes, injuries and deaths were preventable.
Last week, hundreds of traffic safety professionals gathered at the Governors Highway Safety Association’s annual conference to raise awareness for emerging highway transportation issues and to discuss ways to reach our ultimate goal of zero deaths on the nation’s roadways. The theme of this year’s conference was the effects of technology on highway safety. While technologies like collision avoidance systems, seat belts, and alcohol ignition interlocks have the potential to save thousands of lives, other technologies like smart phones, tablets, and computers pose an unnecessary safety risk when used behind the wheel.
In her keynote address to the GHSA conference, NTSB Acting Chairman Deborah Hersman noted that for decades the NTSB has recommended and advocated for technologies that can prevent crashes, reduce injuries, and save lives, such as use of mandatory alcohol ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders and forward collision warning systems. Hersman also noted the dangers of using other technology, such as portable electronic devices, while driving; she cited the NTSB recommendation for a ban on all nonemergency use of such devices, both hands-free and handheld, by drivers. In his remarks, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator David Strickland discussed NHTSA’s Significant and Seamless initiative focusing on increased seat belt use, prevention of impaired driving, and expedited implementation of technologies that would prevent an unbelted or impaired driver from operating their vehicles. Google safety expert Ron Medford spoke about the potential of Google’s self-driving car to reduce accidents caused by human error, as well as to enhance mobility for older drivers and the disabled.
However, we can’t just rely on technology to solve the problem of traffic crashes. As Hersman noted, we are years — and in some cases decades — away from seeing newly-developed lifesaving technologies in all vehicles on the road. With more than 30,000 people killed and thousands more injured each year in traffic crashes, we can’t afford to wait years to see these technologies’ reach their full potential. We must continue to encourage people to become safer drivers through safer behavior. It takes strong laws, effective educational campaigns, and visible enforcement of laws to change human behavior. That’s why the work of the traffic safety professionals featured at the 2103 GHSA conference is so critical. Their dedication just might save your loved ones’ lives … or even your own.
Davis and Cheek are safety advocates in the NTSB Office of Communications.