Death Stalks the Highways

Traffic fatalities could reach their highest number in almost a decade, as automakers and politicians have grown complacent and neglected safety issues.

One of the success stories of highway safety during the last two decades has been the decrease in the number of highway deaths. Highway fatalities had fallen to record lows in the last few years.

In 2002, there were 43,005 deaths on the nation's roads and highways. By 2011, it had fallen to 32,479, or an almost 25 percent reduction. It has hovered around 33,000 for the last few years and then last year, it rose sharply with an estimated 35, 092 deaths.

Even worse?

This year is likely to be even worse, with the first six months showing a 9 percent increase in traffic fatalities from the same period last year. An estimated 19,100 people have already died this year, and if that rate worsens slightly for the remainder of the year, we could see more than 40,000 deaths by year's end for the first time since 2007.

There are many factors contributing to the sudden increase in motor vehicle deaths, and one of those may be the very success of the last 50 years of improvements in vehicle safety features, efforts to reduce driving while intoxicated and better-designed highways.

This combined with the tremendous effect of the recession of 2008, which left millions out of work. It resulted in the lowest years of highway fatalities in the post-World War 2 era, as the number of miles driven plummeted.

Killed by complacency?

However, that reduction meant lawmakers had little reason to press for more aggressive safety innovations on vehicles and manufacturers could argue they were unneeded, as the statistics seemed to suggest that fatality rates were falling, as if by magic.

The National Safety Council's president Deborah A.P. Hersman, who had been the Chair of the National Safety Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), believes we have grown complacent. She argues safety must be a priority and notes that the current fatality rate would be like two major plane crashes occurring weekly. Such rates would never be tolerated by the flying public, yet is accepted by the driving public without a murmur.

Flawed human element

Drivers are the problem. Most motor vehicle crashes are the result of negligence With 94 percent of fatal crashes due to driver error, autonomous vehicles, if they were available and reliable, could tremendously reduce these deaths. Nevertheless, it may take many years before such systems are reliable enough to have a substantial effect.

Intoxication still costs more than 10,000 lives each year and distraction, especially that due to texting and using cellphones while driving, is a significant and growing problem. While many states have passed laws regulating this behavior, enforcing these laws has been difficult.

Texting or something else?

Law enforcement cannot easily tell if a driver is texting or simply looking at a map on their phone. We really do not know how many crashes are caused by this form of distraction, as it may not be clear in the aftermath of a violent crash if the driver was texting, had fallen asleep or was simply not paying attention.

This means that the number of deaths and severe injuries caused by distraction is likely to be significantly underestimated. It may only be during litigation in a personal injury or wrongful death case that phone records will be uncovered that show a driver was active on their phone immediately prior to a crash.

Both accurately identifying the number of crashes and developing methods to deter people from engaging in activities like texting is difficult.

Cellphones great utility is due to their being always available. We can find an address that we have never driven to before or call for help when a breakdown occurs. But we can also use them to watch movies while driving or update our Facebook page seconds before we crash into another vehicle.

More can be done

Legislators could demand that additional safety features, such as automatic braking systems, which engage when a vehicle comes too close to another car, be mandatory on all vehicles. Such a system would help stop many rear-end crashes, the most common type of crash.

Automakers refrain from adding such features to their entire fleet, as they often prefer to withhold them and only put them on the most expensive models, where they can command a premium price. Government mandates are often necessary as a way to ensure that everyone receives the same level of safety because safety should never be a luxury.

If you have been severely injured in a crash of a motor vehicle in Missouri, you want an experienced attorney from Harper, Evans, Wade & Netemeyer handling your case. They will thoroughly investigate your crash, looking for signs that the other driver was negligent, such as texting, drowsy driving or intoxication.