Connectivity and vehicle fatalities

Just before Thanksgiving, the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released preliminary data showing that the number of deaths from traffic accidents in the United States jumped 8.1 percent in the first half of 2015, compared with the same period last year.

The data is troubling not only because it reverses the slight decline in traffic deaths in the United States in 2014, but also because it suggests that smartphones and other connected devices are causing a lot of dumb — and dangerous — driving.

According to fatality data NHTSA has collected on a quarterly basis since 1975, the last time the United States saw a significant consecutive series of quarters with declines in fatality was between 2006 and 2010. Since then, we traffic deaths had plateaued until the first half of 2015, which marked the biggest six-month jump since 1977.

Percentage Change in Fatalities in Every Quarter as Compared to the Fatalities in the Same Quarter During the Previous Year (Source: NHTSA) Click here for larger image

Percentage Change in Fatalities in Every Quarter as Compared to the Fatalities in the Same Quarter During the Previous Year (Source: NHTSA)
Click here for larger image

NHTSA cites a litany of human misbehavior contributing to the rise of traffic deaths in 2014 — including drunk driving (representing one-third of fatalities), wearing no seat belt (49 percent of passenger vehicle occupants killed were not belted in), motorcyclists in states without strong helmet laws and drowsy driving (2.6 percent of all crash fatalities).

Most alarming in NHTSA’s announcement is the fact that distracted driving accounted for 10 percent of all crash fatalities, killing 3,179 people in 2014.

In a press briefing last week, Mark Rosekind, who heads the NHTSA, said, “The increase in smartphones in our hands is so significant, there's no question that has to play some role. But we don't have enough information yet to determine how big a role.”

Constantly connected drivers
We all know that constantly connected drivers are also distracted drivers. We also know that there are no effective state laws that prohibit the use of hand-held smartphones while driving.

I don’t think I’m alone in my frustration with the tech industry’s typical response to traffic safety issues. These companies usually throw more technology at the problem while opting for silence on public policy.

Both automakers and chip suppliers have been pitching “accident-free cars” loaded with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), or autonomous driving technologies designed to take the human driver out of the equation.

Certainly, the tech industry’s push for Connected Cars (V2V), ADAS and the ultimate self-driving cars fits nicely into a narrative full of safety slogans, while conveniently generating the potential for more profit for carmakers.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that these new high-tech features will save lives — in the long term. But sorely missing are policy proposals to save lives between now and a not-so-near future when every car on the street will be outfitted with V2V and ADAS features.

Even the planned introduction of federal regulations to require all new cars produced after 2017 to feature V2V and V2I technology doesn’t feel like soon enough.

Roger Lanctot, associate director of Strategy Analytics’ global automotive practice, noted in a recent blog: “The wireless carriers—AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint—know very well that much of daily driving behavior is predictable yet little is being done to leverage this knowledge to mitigate the carnage on U.S. highways. This is not acceptable. Where are the coordinated policy proposals?”

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