Traffic crashes that claim the lives of one, two, . . . maybe even five people don’t seem that severe. Would there be more urgency to address highway safety if per-crash fatalities were higher? Suppose a family member or a friend was the one killed or injured? Typically, it’s not until someone we love is hurt that we realize most highway crashes are not accidents at all, but are thoroughly preventable. “Accidents,” on the other hand, are unforeseen and unpredictable.
Fatal crashes can often be attributed to the all-too-human failings of trying to get somewhere just a bit quicker than traffic or road conditions will safely allow, not planning for alternative transportation after a few drinks, being distracted by a text message, or choosing to get behind the wheel after a night of too little sleep. We know how to stop this—the solutions aren’t new or complicated. The NTSB has been advocating for effective countermeasures for decades. Last month, we issued our 2019–2020 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements, which highlights the actions needed to prevent transportation accidents and crashes. Guess what’s on the list? Distraction, fatigue, and medical fitness. Speed and impairment are also included.
All drivers—private and commercial—are supposed to be medically fit to drive. Professional drivers who are prone to seizures, who may be suffering from undiagnosed diabetes, or who are at risk of another sudden-onset, incapacitating illness shouldn’t be operating big rigs or motor coaches until they’re treated and under a physician’s care. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has made some progress in improving its medical oversight system, but too many drivers continue to obtain licenses despite medically disqualifying conditions. Is this acceptable?
Fatigue is another huge problem on our roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2015, 90,000 police-reported crashes, which led to an estimated 41,000 people injured, involved drowsy drivers. In 2017, nearly 800 fatalities resulted from drowsy driving, and these numbers are certainly and significantly undercounted. Undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea affects both professional drivers and the public at large. Drivers who aren’t sleeping well should see a physician about underlying causes of insomnia. Fatigue is proven to have the same deadly effects as alcohol consumption.
Finally, distraction! It’s been conclusively proven that humans are lousy multitaskers, and our ability to self-assess our skills to the contrary is likewise flawed. (I’m really good, and if you don’t believe it, just ask me!) Studies have consistently shown that mobile phone use also leads to about the same level of impairment as—you guessed it—too much alcohol (the NTSB has recommended that all states lower legal DUI levels to .05 percent blood alcohol concentration). Texting while driving can increase the crash risk up to 22 times. In 2016, more than 3,100 fatal crashes involving distraction occurred on US roadways (again, this number is likely much underreported). In this age of constant connection, it’s beyond time to ask ourselves, is it worth the cost?
And it’s not just portable devices that are causing distraction, either. Auto manufacturers want to sell the most fun-to-drive products with the best infotainment systems. But too much button pushing and menu navigation means too much heads-down time in complex traffic environments. Let’s use our technology and knowledge to stop the carnage.
A balance of regulation and common sense is needed on both sides of the regulatory divide. Ultimately, it comes down to the cost of human life versus the cost of doing business. It all depends on who’s doing the calculation, but the real cost of lives lost, and collateral damage go well beyond insurance settlements and lawsuits. Is that phone call, text, minutes saved, or extra drink truly worth it? The upside is minimal, the downside horrendous—possibly life-ending or financially ruinous. But it won’t happen to you or anyone you know, right?
By midnight tonight, another 100 friends, neighbors, and family members will have died on our roads. In just one day, several thousand more will have been badly injured, many with no full recovery. This statistic will repeat every day this year, and the next, and the next. And not one person in those crashes, whether they were at fault or innocent victims, started out that day thinking it would be their last. So, what are you going to do about it?