Four Traffic Safety Solutions Implementable Now

Originally published by Meeting of the Minds, 9/10/2018. Republished here for archival purposes.

On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people were killed in New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. It was a senseless act of violence.

On September 12, 2001, 100 more people were killed at dozens of locations around the United States. On September 13th, 100 more died, and another 100 each day for the rest of the year. By the end of 2001 more than 42,000 people were killed in roadway crashes in this country.

Over the last 15 years, more than 500,000 people – one half million people – were killed on our nation’s roadways.

Each was a senseless act of violence. Each was tragic. Each was preventable.

Fast forward to today. The tragedies we continue to see on TV and online – especially for children and young adults – stem from gun violence, drug abuse, or terrorism. But the number one killer of our young people is not the opioid crisis or an AR-15 rifle. The single biggest killer in the United States for 16-to-24-year olds is a roadway crash. A boring, run-off-the-road, hit-a-tree, or texting-while-driving collision.

But what if I told you that this problem has already been solved? That we have the research, the technology, and a path to implementation to eradicate roadway deaths forever?

I have spent the past 20 years learning all aspects of roadway safety. I have reviewed tens of millions of crash data records, searching for the most common reasons for these tragedies. I have spoken with police officers who visit crash scenes so I could learn what they look for. I have spent time driving and walking through a crash scene, envisioning it from each perspective of road users, seeing what they see, smelling what they smell. I have sat through legislative debates to add new laws, revoke old laws, and everything in between. Traffic safety is a complex topic because it is so much about us – more than the vehicles or the concrete or steel that make up the system – and we are complicated.

I am convinced that most solutions are already here to address our biggest road safety problems. We only need the internal fortitude, the moral compass, and the strength of conviction to apply the tools at our disposal. I have identified four specific solutions – each tested and proven to reduce traffic crashes – that if fully applied could easily cut U.S. roadway fatalities in half.

Solution #1: Ignition Interlock for Alcohol and Seat Belts
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, each year more than 10,000 traffic fatalities occur in crashes with an alcohol-impaired driver. There is a device called ignition interlock that requires a driver to blow into a breathalyzer and receive a 0.0 Blood Alcohol Content for the car to start. It’s an amazing technology with a $150 price tag. Installing ignition interlock in every new vehicle could result in virtually eliminating alcohol-involved crashes.

The interlock technology could be expanded to include seat belt use as well. Nearly half of those killed in traffic crashes (48 percent) are NOT wearing a seat belt. It is freely available in every vehicle manufactured, and in most states, it is illegal to not wear it. But what if the car would not start until everyone was buckled in? How many lives could we save?

Solution #2: Speed Reduction
More than 10,000 traffic deaths each year result from excessive speed. Nearly 100 percent of car commercials in United States include excessive speed. We build vehicles capable of traveling well over 100 miles per hour, but there is not one speed limit posted in the U.S. higher than 80 mph. And crashes at these speeds often result in fatalities.

The technology to solve this problem is simple. Speed limit enforcement cameras, coupled with zero-tolerance policies, have been highly successful in many countries in the world. For many years long-haul freight companies have regulated fleet speeds, governing their truck velocities for fuel conservation and safety. Should we consider a governor for passenger cars and motorcycles as well?

The culture change to solve this problem is much more difficult. Speeding is the most socially acceptable violation on the road, and for some reason forcing drivers to obey this law still feels like a ridiculous idea.

Solution #3: Active Transportation
An elegant solution many have chosen is to reduce their reliance on cars or forego driving altogether. I bus to and from my home to work, and my kids do the same to their school. It is becoming easier and easier to navigate without a car, and we find that without a 3,000-pound motor vehicle involved, the remaining crashes among 150-pound pedestrians and 30-pound bicycles rarely result in serious injuries or death.

In some parts of the country this decision is not as easy, as the lack of facilities and more extreme climates makes active transportation less convenient. In addition, most Americans have been pumped full of car-culture since birth. Recalibration takes time.

Solution #4: Connected and Automated Mobility
Of course, many of these human-centered problems could go away once the robots are driving. Not long after cars were invented, scientists were envisioning how to automate them. Vehicles connected to the roadway and each other have used the street as their laboratory since the mid-1990s, and now, with hundreds of millions of miles and decades of experience under our belt, highly-automated vehicles are a reality.

Like active transportation, it will take time for drivers to give a connected/automated vehicle full control of navigation. As late as 2017, more than half of those surveyed did not want to ride in a driverless vehicle, even if it is deemed safer. Of those who said no, 72 percent do not trust automated vehicles and have safety concerns about the technology.

Objectively, connected/automated vehicles have proven to be as safe or safer than human drivers, not suffering from our bodily limitations like drowsiness, inattention, fatigue, or impairment from drugs and alcohol. Connected/automated vehicles can see for miles all around them, not just in front, and they can respond near-instantaneously without the limitation of human reaction time. Research continues to push the technology forward, and experts estimate incredible safety benefits in the next few years.

The science of traffic safety has solved the problem. Now it is up to us to apply these methods to save lives.