The notion that human error is responsible for 94 percent of road crashes is “a deadly myth,” David Zipper says. Writing in The Atlantic, Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, contends that blaming crashes on drivers’ bad decisions implies nobody else could have prevented them.
“That enables car companies to deflect attention from their decisions to add heft and height to the SUVs and trucks that make up an ever larger portion of vehicle sales, and it allows traffic engineers to escape scrutiny for dangerous street designs,” Zipper writes.
Zipper’s article appeared after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported last October that more than 20,000 Americans died in road crashes in the first half of 2021, an 18.4 percent increase compared to 2020 and the largest number of fatalities in that time period since 2006.
“This is a crisis,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who announced the U.S. Department of Transportation plans to produce its first ever National Roadway Safety Strategy in response to the numbers. “We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America.”
Buttigieg is correct. The death rate on our roads, which is markedly higher than that in other highly motorized developed nations like Australia, the U.K., Germany, and Sweden, is unacceptable. But NHTSA’s own research into the 2021 spike suggests Zipper’s so-called deadly myth is in fact America’s deadly reality.
Driver error is the overwhelming reason motor vehicles crash and kill.
NHTSA noted in its analysis that the pandemic lockdowns and work-from-home directives significantly changed driving patterns and behaviors in 2020. “Of the drivers who remained on the roads, some engaged in riskier behavior, including speeding, failure to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs,” NHTSA reported in its October 2021 Traffic Safety Facts research report. “Speeding and not using seat belts remained elevated in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic times. Changes in alcohol and other types of drug use [were] also documented.”
Automobiles didn’t fundamentally change in the first half of the year. Road systems didn’t change, either. Driver behavior did, and that’s why fatal crashes spiked.
Driving a modern car, truck, or SUV, most of which are equipped with automatic transmissions, power steering, antilock brakes, and stability control systems, isn’t difficult. Most of us find it way easier than playing the piano or juggling chain saws. And that’s precisely the problem. These days we can get where we want to go with an astonishingly low level of attention to the driving process. And every time we arrive at our destination in one piece, we subconsciously reinforce this behavior.
Too many people die on our roads because too many drivers simply aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing and what’s happening around them.
Zendrive, a transportation data analytics firm, says that in nearly 17 percent of all collisions it analyzed in 2020, a phone was in use in one of the vehicles 5 seconds before impact. The Federal Highway Administration says more than 50 percent of the combined total of injury and fatal crashes occur at or near intersections, the majority of which have roadways controlled by at least one traffic signal or one stop sign. In almost 17 percent of fatal crashes involving large trucks, NHTSA says those killed were in the vehicles that rear-ended the trucks.
No matter how hard automakers work on active and passive crash safety systems, no matter how well our roads are designed for safety, humans—disinterested or distracted or drunk or drugged behind the wheel—will always be the weak link in the system. Because to err is human.
“Drive to the conditions, and don’t drive faster than you can see,” my dad said when he taught me to drive in our old Land Rover many years ago. “And don’t assume anyone else on the road knows what they’re doing.”
That’s still sound advice.
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