Mayhem on America’s highways has taken the lives of just over 1 million people since 1990, a level of decimation that has gotten far less attention than the approximately 659,000 people struck down by AIDS since it began garnering headlines in the 1980s.
People have been dying on the roads ever since 1899, when Henry Hale Bliss was killed by a taxicab as he stepped off a streetcar at West 74th Street and Central Park West in New York. He is on record as the victim of the first traffic-related death in U.S. history. But these days, traffic fatalities generally are big news only when several people are killed in a crash.
The reasons about 90 people die in vehicle crashes every day — and that the number of deaths appears to be increasing — are described in a new survey scheduled to be released Thursday by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Although the report slices the issues by category, it summarizes them with the observation that Americans harbor a “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude.
“There is a culture of indifference for far too many drivers when it comes to road safety,” said Peter Kissinger, the AAA foundation’s president.
Although 20 percent of drivers have been involved in a crash that sent someone to a hospital and nearly 1 in 3 people have friends or relatives who were killed or seriously injured in one, the responses show a great disparity between what people view as safe driving and what they do when behind the wheel themselves.
“When you do something dangerous time and time again without any negative consequences, it’s easy to become conditioned to repeat that same behavior,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “That’s why strong laws and sustained, high-visibility enforcement are so critical.”
Most drivers — 83 percent — say they drive more safely than other people on the road, but the AAA foundation survey found that:
●Almost everyone thinks drinking and driving don’t mix, but 1 out of 8 drivers admitted that they have been close to or above the legal limit in the past year.
●Almost 90 percent of people think texting or emailing while driving is dangerous, but 42 percent said they had read a text or email while driving in the past month.
●Most people said that distracted driving has become a bigger problem in the past three years, but 70 percent said they had talked on the phone while driving in the past month.
●Although speeding is a factor in about 10,000 deaths per year, close to half of those surveyed said they were guilty of it on freeways and residential streets.
●Intersection collisions cause nearly 700 deaths and 125,000 injuries, and drivers deplore people who run red lights, but 39 percent of those surveyed said that in the past month they had run a light that had just turned red, even though they could have stopped safely.
●Virtually everyone sees drowsy driving as a serious threat to their safety, but more than 30 percent said they have had trouble keeping their eyes open while driving in the past 30 days.
“The crash data trends reveal that traffic deaths, near misses with death, and road traffic injuries . . . are preventable,” said John B. Townsend II, an official at AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Road designs and features that made cars safer were credited with a fairly steady six-year decline in traffic deaths. Increased seat-belt use, air bags, anti-lock braking, stability controls that keep cars from flipping and a new generation of electronic warnings and cameras have been cited for cars being far safer than they were a generation ago.
The number of drivers and passengers killed in traffic crashes declined to 32,675 in 2014 — a record-low fatality rate of 1.07 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled — but preliminary numbers from last year show an alarming reversal of that trend.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration won’t complete its calculations for 2015 until later this year, but it says there was a 9.3 percent increase in the first three quarters of the year.
“NHTSA estimates that more than 26,000 people died in traffic crashes in the first nine months of 2015, compared to the 23,796 fatalities in the first nine months of 2014,” NHTSA said in a news release this month.
More safety features are installed with each new model year of vehicles, but Adkins cautioned that until somewhere down the road when cars are able to drive themselves, drivers still will make daily life-or-death decisions.
“Technology can help, but isn’t a magical cure,” Adkins said. “As more vehicles incorporate autonomous features, it is still critical that the driver stay engaged and be able to ‘jump in’ if necessary. With 2 in 3 drivers admitting they talk on their phone while driving, we won’t be able to fully employ the safety benefits of these advanced vehicle technologies unless there’s a dramatic culture change.”