Can Autonomous Cars Prevent 100% Of U.S. Traffic-Related Deaths?

autonomous vehicle technology to reduce U.S. traffic fatalities within 30 years Obama Administration self-driving car innovations

Navigating The Future With Care

When we consider how many people die each year from traffic-related accidents, it becomes clear why so many car companies are pushing the development of safer and more reliable self-driving car technology.

The core issue that we have to consider when thinking about the promise of driverless technology is how many people could autonomous vehicles save in the coming years?

The answer, it turns out, is astonishing.

By all accounts, self-driving cars could save tens of millions of traffic-related fatalities by the end of the century across the world.

Increased Automobile Traffic & U.S. Fatalities

The potential impact that autonomous cars could have on the safety of public roads in the United States is not theoretical.

In 1970, about 60,000 people died in traffic-related accidents in the United States. In the coming years, we can see a decrease in fatalities with the improvement of car technologies like airbags and more education about seat belts.

In the near future, we can see a decrease in fatalities with the improvement of car technologies like airbags and more education about seat belts.

The main causes for the decrease of automobile deaths included:

  1. Increased use of seat belts.
  2. Fewer drunken drivers.
  3. Technology improvements like stability control.

As a result of ongoing technological development, traffic safety equipment technologies, and thorough driver safety education the number of traffic deaths hit the lowest point in 2013 at 32,719.

However, deaths quickly rose in 2015, when the number of people who died in auto accidents jumped to 35,092. This represents an increase of 7.2 percent increase over the same period of 2014.

Despite decades of safety improvements, we still see the effects of human drivers have on the safety of our public roads. The primary factors leading to the increased death toll included:

  • Passengers are not wearing seat belts (about 50%).
  • Drunken driving or speeding (30%)
  • Distracted driving (10%).

The surprising statistics from this report was that about 40% of the deaths could be contributed to human error like speeding, drunk driving, and distracted driving.

These human causes have not been eliminated even with a stronger focus to address their impact. 

Autonomous vehicle technological innovations are pushed forward with the intention to address the human element of dynamic driving conditions.

Perhaps where humans continue to prove ineffective with roadway driving, technology can supply the solutions we need to find improved roadway safety.

A Surprising Rise Of Deaths In 2015

The upward trend of accident deaths continued through 2015. The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that 38,300 people were killed and 4.4 million people injured on U.S. roads.

Overall, there was about an 8% increase between 2014 and 2015 death toll from auto-related accidents.

A few of the main reasons that lead to the growth of roadway deaths throughout the United States includes:

  1. Lower gas prices, so more people driving more.
  2. Improving economy leading to more cars on U.S. roads.
  3. Increasing adoption of mobile phones and distracted drivers texting while driving.

However, these factors alone can’t account for such a significant increase in accident-related fatalities.

Neither the number of miles driven nor the change of population or even cell phone usage can explain the jump we saw in 2015.

Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the NSC explains that many of the underlying factors leading to the shift of fatalities are still unknown.

“We don’t know with a lot of detail what the causality is”

Hersman says, explaining that police reports and other sources could help determine some of the unseen factors with a little more investigation. However, past NSC research has shown the three most important factors for motor-vehicle deaths are:

However, past NSC research has shown the three most important factors for motor-vehicle deaths are:

  • Alcohol (30.8%)
  • Speed (30%)
  • Distracted driving (26%)

Motor-vehicle deaths are not only disruptive to the families affected, but the loss of life also has a considerable impact on the economy. Economic impacts from automobile accidents have a broad range of results, including:

  • Wage and productivity losses.
  • Medical expenses.
  • Administrative costs.
  • Employer costs and property damages.

A New Commitment For U.S. Road Safety

In response to the increased rate of fatalities on U.S. roads, the Obama Administration has made a significant commitment in the pursuit to make drivers safer across U.S. roadways.

An ambitious agenda was laid out with the goal to eliminate traffic deaths within 30 years.

The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other agencies have seen the increase of traffic-related deaths as a sign that something as to be done.

There has been a consistent increase in roadway deaths as more people drive more at any given time.

In turn, the NHTSA has a renewed commitment to remove the effects of distracted driving.

Backed by a $1 million per year budget, The Traffic Department will promote safe driving through a campaign called Road to Zero.

This coordinated marketing effort will also include the installation of necessary safety infrastructure such as rumble strips.

Safety Of Autonomous Cars

With the continuous increase of motor-vehicle fatalities, research is beginning to seriously consider the impact that driverless cars could have on the overall safety of roads in the U.S. and across the world.

The most recent estimates show that self-driving cars could reduce fatalities by up to 90%.

Using 2013 death reports as a baseline, a 90% decrease would mean about 29,447 lives would be saved each year. In the United States alone, this would mean nearly 300,000 fatalities would be prevented over the next decade.

Currently, the United States is the second highest country by lethality among accident types. The hope is that as autonomous vehicles and other advanced driver-assistance systems advance the overall crashes in the United States will fall.

Along with saving lives, the reduction of accidents could also save as much as $190 billion each year in health-care costs.

Success Is Based On Technology Adoption

While self-driving car technology shows significant opportunities to reduce fatalities, this technology is only valuable if these advancements see widespread adoption.

Since autonomous technology is in the early stages of testing, many people do not trust the technology as their primary safety guard. People need to see proof that free technology is worth that it is safer than a human driver.

Without evidence that autonomous vehicle technology is safer than manually driving a car, self-driving car technology will not have as large of an impact on roadway safety as anticipated.

Without evidence that autonomous vehicle technology is safer than manually driving a car, self-driving car technology will not have as large of an impact on roadway safety as anticipated.

Some surveys show the public has a healthy distrust for automated vehicles. A recent study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that most of the 505 drivers researched were not happy about the idea of automated vehicles.

A large segment of respondents indicated they would rather retain full control over their vehicles rather than trust in autonomous technology. In fact, an overwhelming majority of responses showed a preference for non-driverless tech. Survey responses indicated the leading answers as:

  1. No self-driving capability (43.8%)
  2. Partially self-driving vehicles (40.6%)
  3. Full self-driving car technology (15.6%)

Drivers have been driving pretty much the same since the first car rolled off the assembly line. Humans have always been the primary decision-makers on the road, and replacing the responsibility of the human driver with an automated system can cause people to be nervous.

The unknowns that come with an emerging technology such as autonomous systems can create even larger trust issues since the technology has not been proven to be a substantial improvement over the status-quo of human driving cars.

How To Be Safer Today

While we all look forward to the day where there are no longer traffic-related fatalities in the United States, we should do everything in our power to protect ourselves today. Taking time to ensure you and your passengers arrive safely could be as simple as following these steps from basic Driver’s Ed class:

  • Make sure every passenger buckles up.
  • Designate an alcohol-free driver or call an Uber driver to pick you up .
  • Get plenty of sleep and take regular breaks while driving to prevent fatigue.
  • Do not use your cell phone to call or text as you drive. Instead, use a hands-free alternative.
  • Learn about your vehicle’s safety systems, if available, and use them to ensure your trip is as safe as possible.

Looking Forward For Driver Safety

As the U.S.drivers imagine a time when there are no fatalities on the roads, we should do everything in our power to make that dream a reality today.

If we all take proper precautions, we can help reduce the number and severity of automobile accidents in our way.

By following basic Driver’s Ed instructions, we should have a better chance of arriving at our destination safely and be able to witness the time when the U.S. eradicates fatalities caused by vehicle crashes.

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Author: Chris Giarratana

Chris is a Digital Media Strategy Consultant in Orlando, FL who specializes in developing marketing strategies for small businesses, researching emerging technologies, and enjoys studying transportation issues.

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