Death Tolls: With Greater Safety Systems, Why Are Our Highways Becoming More Unsafe?
An alarming statistic crashed itself across the internet recently. While traffic deaths in America have been on a steady decline for decades due to improvements in safety, a drop in drunk driving, and a steady hike in seat belt usage among other things, fresh findings in a report by The National Safety Council claims we’ve turned that hard-fought trend upside down in the first six months of 2015. Reaching just under 19,000 deaths by the end of May, odds are the second half of this year will look even more grim because July and August–the heaviest driving months–are yet to be tallied. We have not seen 40,000 traffic deaths in one year since 2007 but we very well may see it in 2015. “Right of Way” is a weekly opinion column from automotive journalist, recovering racer and guitarist Jim Resnick. But before we get our collective underpants in a knot over it, let’s look at this from a global perspective. Indeed, the U.S. logs more fatalities-per-billion-vehicle-kilometers driven than most other developed nations who keep statistics, but not all. Using the latest 2013 data, we hit the most germane stat at 6.8 fatalities per billion vehicle-kilometers driven, where the combined U.K. logs 3.5, Switzerland hits 4.3, Germany lands at 4.6, France hits 5.8 and Japan tops this sample list with 6.9 deaths per 1 billion vehicle-kilometers. We drive many more total miles in the U.S. than any other country and our total road fatality numbers reflect that, but it is not woefully out of proportion to other developed countries. More telling, though, is that these road fatalities also include non-car-related stats. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists account for half the fatalities, but account for a tiny fraction of usage and exposure; a common thread across developed countries. Some have waxed philosophical about the probable causes of this spike in sheer numbers from the first half of 2015. Low fuel prices. Distracted driving due to mobile phones and texting while driving. Higher speed limits. In-car entertainment and goof-off systems like Android Auto and Google CarPlay. All of these are easy, logical causes. That doesn’t make them invalid; just easy. I submit that there are three more, but somehow, few people put them together with highway fatalities. RELATED: A Lesson in How to Save Scion
First, poor road and infrastructure conditions are certainly evident to those of us in major metro areas. This has been the case for decades and too often becomes a political can kicked down the road with no one taking responsibility, nor assembling a comprehensive plan, so it’s not new. But the driving public suffers. Decrepit roads eat tires, wheels and axles, and break springs and shocks. Furthermore – and there’s no science, nor statistics to back me up on this, but my powers of observation tell me so – truck tire carcasses are growing like crabgrass on the highways I traverse and I’ve heard the same from friends in other regions of the country. These land mines create impromptu slalom courses for which average drivers are not ready and sometimes not capable of avoiding. Combine this with the cloak of darkness at night, and you create a serious threat to safety. And let’s not blame retreaded truck tires, because there’s good evidence that when decently done, they pose no greater delamination threat than truck tires baked in the oven from scratch.
One trucking-related problem we absolutely can point a finger at is sleep-deprived drivers. More than 110,000 people are injured and more than 5,000 are killed in the United States in motor vehicle accidents involving commercial trucks, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Ugly numbers. The DOT estimates that sleep deprivation occurs in 13 percent of all fatal crashes caused by trucks. And this is a growing problem.
This topic gained huge visibility last year after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced fatigue was to blame for an accident that critically injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed fellow comedian James McNair on the New Jersey Turnpike when a Walmart truck ran into the comedians’ van. New information shows that truck driver had not slept in over 28 hours.
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The truck driver started his driving day 800 miles and a 12-hour commute before picking up his appointed trailer and was therefore officially on the clock. He then drove another 13 1/2 hours to New Jersey, where he was also driving 20 mph over the posted limit through a construction zone when he crashed into Morgan’s and McNair’s vehicle. There was no mechanism in the truck drivers’ book to account for that 12-hour commute to pick up the trailer.
Sadly, the non-union trend in trucking may be playing a part, too. While unions can drive up the cost - and sometimes, waste - in industries, they certainly provide a safety net for minimum standards and can influence regulations. Labor membership of for-hire truck drivers declined between 1970 and 1990 from 60 percent to 25 percent. By 2014, just over 17 percent of for-hire truckers were represented by unions. Truckers are easy targets for our ire, but longer driving stints to make time are incentivized by the companies commissioning the routes.
Lastly, I blame the commercial airlines. I personally know about a dozen people who would simply rather drive up to six hours or perhaps 500 miles in order to save themselves from having to deal with the dehumanizing experience of commercial flight these days. Between the airport traffic, the lines, the luggage woes, the flight delays, the ridiculous price of airport food, the often surly service, a net toss-up on time saved on flights of short range, and the ground transportation headaches, air travel today is a depressing crush of the human soul.
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Even with the more alarming stats, I’d much rather be captain of my own ship for the better part of a day and listen to satellite radio or my favorite music.
Yes, I’ll drive, thanks.