MORE PEOPLE are dying on the road — a lot more. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced this week that road fatalities spiked 10.4 percent in the first half of the year, representing a six-month death toll of 17,775. Though the government did not explain what is driving the increase, one thing is clear: Most of these deaths are preventable. Passing the right laws, installing smarter infrastructure and deploying new technology would save many lives.
Part of the problem seems to be that, with the economy improving, people are driving more — 50.5 billion more miles in the first half of the year than in the first six months of last year. But that 3.3 percent increase in miles traveled cannot explain the whole rise in road deaths. The fatality rate relative to the number of miles traveled has also risen. This year’s increase in the road death rate, meanwhile, comes on top of a similarly dramatic rise last year.
Government analysts found that last year’s uptick came mainly from an increase in fatalities among pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicyclists. This finding suggests that local planners could better demarcate or protect bike lanes, particularly in urban areas in which cycling has become more common. Perhaps drivers distracted by phones and other in-car diversions can more easily maintain a peripheral view of larger objects, such as other cars, but not smaller ones, such as motorcycles. Even if that dynamic is insignificant, restrictions on operating smartphones while driving should be more broadly adopted and enforced. Investigation after investigation has shown large decreases in reaction time among distracted drivers.
Along with strict enforcement of drunken-driving laws, all of these responses to the rising road death rate are relatively cheap and can be applied quickly. In the longer term, the development of new safety technologies may hold the key to drastically slashing traffic fatalities, because nearly all road deaths are due to human error. Tech firms and automakers have been developing autonomous vehicle technologies for years. Some basic innovations, such as sensors that monitor blind spots and help drivers brake to avoid collisions, are in increasingly wide use. More advanced features, such as sensors and software that enable vehicles to drive themselves in certain situations, will penetrate the market soon.
The potential for fully driverless cars to transform American life is tantalizing. Cars sit unused in driveways or parking lots much of the time. Driverless cars would make this waste unnecessary, as they eliminated the necessity of car ownership for most people. Parking shortages, time-wasting traffic and, yes, road deaths would all decline with the advent of effective driverless technologies. The trick for the government will be neither overregulating nor underregulating. Companies must show that their electronic drivers are well-designed across a range of measures, such as how they respond when a sensor fails. At the same time, the longer that driverless technologies are tied up in bureaucratic process, the longer it will take for Americans to see their benefits materialize.
The Obama administration recently announced a regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles that seems aimed at striking this balance. The next administration should be as conscientious.