Over 20,000 people in the United States are killed between the months of January and June alone on American roadways. This number has increased by 10% over the last decade, whereas in the European Union, traffic related deaths dropped 36% from 2010 to 2020. As reported by The Atlantic, the remarkable drop in fatalities across Europe can be traced to regulations that require car manufacturers to build safer vehicles, including with respect to vehicle damage to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as consistently and recurrently adjusting road designs themselves in the wake of fatal crashes.
For years, U.S. car accidents have commonly been attributed to “driver error,” or blamed on pedestrians or bicycle riders. The Atlantic observes that the American narrative has remained focused on the actually-false “statistic” that “94% of car accidents are due to human error.” In fact, as the extraordinary safety improvements across Europe’s roads show, the 2015 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration memo noting this 94% figure has been aggressively misquoted and perpetuated in its inaccuracy. A careful review of the memo reveals that drivers’ “94% blame rate” was “not intended to be interpreted as the cause of the crash[es].” As the report further detailed, there are almost always several contributing factors other than human error that result in accidents, ranging from poor weather conditions, flawed traffic engineering, and unsafe vehicle design.
There are multiple reasons for the obfuscation and incorrect reporting/attribution of crash causes, including law enforcement and insurance company imperatives to assign a single cause to every crash, as well as inherent cost-saving road design elements that can contribute quite seriously to accidents and so-called “driver errors.”
The Atlantic’s analysis continues, noting that the 94% statistic is widely used by influential news outlets and research institutions, and that even former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chow cited the statistic in public discussion. This is regrettable, as the wrongful attribution of blame to drivers has the effect of disincentivizing the very improvements to roads and vehicles that actually cause a preponderance of accidents. Indeed, the Atlantic highlights how the mistaken focus on drivers leads automakers to de-emphasize potential lifesaving safety designs for their cars.
What’s more, the false focus on drivers-as-sole-cause contributes significantly to the presumption of inherently greater safety in “driverless” vehicles guided by AI and radar. Indeed, if the vehicle safety and road design safety elements are as critical in contributing to crashes and deaths as the too-often-quoted “94% is the driver’s fault,” the entire enterprise of “automated vehicles are much safer” falls apart. Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Phil Koopman has noted that AVs will make their own mistakes on the road; he does not expect automation to reduce car crashes by more than 50% — at best. Autonomous driving vehicle technology is also decades away and will not help reduce the death toll from car accidents accruing daily.
It’s past time that vehicle manufacturers and municipalities dropped the phony “it’s all the driver’s fault” mentality and focus on real-world changes that are desperately needed for the vehicles themselves and the roads upon which they travel so that we can all move forward safely into a greater future.
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