The new figures on the national road deaths are out, and if you’re one of those who gets around on two wheels or two feet you can probably thank the millions of government dollars spent on “Click It or Ticket” for helping make your life more dangerous.
All the people safely buckled into their ever-safer cars helped push the death toll for motor-vehicle occupants down for the third straight year, according to the National Highway Safety Administration (NHSA).
Outside the passenger compartments of those cars and trucks, however, things weren’t looking so good in 2018. While passenger-car deaths went down 5.3 percent, the NHSA reported, pedalcyclist deaths went up 6.3 percent and pedestrian deaths jumped 3.4 percent.
Both of the latter recorded the highest death tolls since 1990, the report said. One out of every five people killed on the roads in the U.S. in 2018 was on a bike, a motorcycle or on foot.
Over the course of the past decade, the NHSA reported, the biggest change in deaths is for “nonoccupant fatalities as a proportion of overall traffic fatalities, increasing from 14 percent to 20 percent from 2009 to 2018. During this same decade, the percentage
of passenger car occupant fatalities decreased from 39 percent of the fatalities to 35 percent. The percentage of light-truck occupant fatalities decreased from 30 percent
in 2009 to 27 percent in 2018. The proportion of motorcyclist fatalities increased from 13 percent of the fatalities to 14 percent, and the proportion of large truck, bus, and other vehicle occupant fatalities increased from 3 percent to 4 percent.”
People in motor vehicles continue to comprise the bulk of deaths, however, according to the report. This is to be expected given there are far more people in motor vehicles in this country on any given day than on foot or cycling.
Almost 24,000 of the 36,560 dead in 2018 were in passenger cars, sport-utility vehicles, light trucks or large trucks. Motorcycle deaths totaled almost 5,000 or about 21 percent of all deaths involving powered vehicles.
Among the vulnerable-road-user fatalities, pedestrians suffered the most. More than 6,000 of them died in 2018. For comparison sake, the more than 7,000 pedestrians and pedalcyclists killed by automobiles in 2018 was about 70 percent of the 10,265 people killed in firearm homicides last year.
Some in the U.S. worry a lot about being killed by someone with a gun, but unless you are the resident of an inner-city plagued by gun violence, you’re far more likely to be killed by someone using a car as the instrument of death.
The 36,560 motor-vehicle-related deaths in 2018 numbered more than three times the firearm homicide deaths.
University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman sort of saw this coming 50 years ago. He studied the early government push to get people to wear seatbelts and concluded that “regulation has not decreased highway deaths.
“Time series (but not cross-section) data imply some saving of auto occupants lives at the expense of more pedestrian deaths and more nonfatal accidents, a pattern consistent with optimal driver response to regulation.”
In other words, the overall death toll didn’t decline; it just rearranged. Deaths for passengers in vehicles went down, but deaths for vulnerable road users went up.
That appears to have been a continuing trend, except for an even bigger drop in motor-vehicle passenger deaths because of better car design and crash-cushioning airbags – advancements Peltzman did not see coming.
Neither did he anticipate the mobile phone, which allowed drivers to chat, or its newer derivative, the “smartphone” which allows drivers to text or surf the internet or play games or do something other than pay attention to their driving.
The number of distracted drivers on American roads these days is big enough to have become a topic of much interest and considerable study. The studies are all over the place. Washington state concluded that less than 10 percent of drivers there were driving distracted last year. Minnesota reported almost 30 percent driving distracted there in 2015.
Researchers who conducted a national Distracted Driving Survey in 2015 the next year published a study at Preventative Medicine Reports that said “nearly 60 percent of respondents reported a cell phone reading or writing activity within the prior 30 days, with reading texts (48 percent), writing texts (33 percent) and viewing maps (43 percent) most frequently reported.”
Those who admitted to regularly being distracted by their phone were “four times as likely to have had a crash than” those rarely distracted, the authors of the study wrote.
Nearly all studies have found young drivers more easily distracted by phones than older drivers. Whether they will grow out of the behavior is unknown.
None of this bodes particularly well for vulnerable road users, which has caught the attention of some in the cycling community.
“….The knee-jerk reaction is to pin the blame on “distracted driving” — a euphemism otherwise better known as a selfish asshole paying more attention to something on their phone instead of, you know, driving. I don’t have objective data to prove that assertion, of course, but I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people reading this have more than enough firsthand anecdotal evidence to support that hypothesis,” wrote James Huang at the website Cycling Tips.
“The question, however, is what we do about it.
“I’m all for stacking the odds in your favor as much as possible, but the answer isn’t more blinky lights, or higher-resolution front- and rear-facing cameras, or everyone draping themselves in high-viz clothing – just like how the very US-centric problem of school shootings won’t be solved by outfitting our kids with bulletproof backpacks. Nor does our salvation lie in pie-in-the-sky vehicle-to-cyclist communication and warning systems, or autonomous cars that will supposedly drive themselves better than humans can (well, maybe, but that very much remains to be seen).
The real culprits
“None of those address the core issue: that drivers just aren’t paying attention to their primary job when they’re behind the wheel,” Huang wrote.
A lot of people reading this – if they are honest – will be forced to admit that at some point in recent weeks they weren’t paying full attention to their primary job when behind the wheel.
Huang admitted he had no solution to this problem, although he did offer a few ideas. It’s not an easy problem. Some people may be so addicted to their phones they cannot put them down.
Cell phone or smartphone addiction is not at this time as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), but psychiatrists and psychologists are beginning to talk about whether it should be.
“The range of smartphone functions — including Internet use, online gaming, digital cameras, Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation, and interactive applications such as Pokémon GO and Fitbit® — present an immediate distraction that can take the user’s attention away from real-time events, including school and work, social activities, and driving,” writes Linda Peckel at Psychiatry Advisor.
“Although the concept of smartphone addiction is increasingly becoming accepted, the definitions vary. ( Gutiérrez) De-Sola and colleagues described features of craving, ‘an unstoppable and uncontrollable desire that can lead to use (a drug, a technology), despite its negative and detrimental effects.’ They cited the positive signs of smartphone addiction as urgency, abstinence, dependency, difficulty of control, increased use and the need to stay connected, with prominent negative signs of irritability, restlessness, stress, and mood changes associated with inaccessibility to the smartphone.”
Huang suggested that maybe if cars were made more difficult to drive, as they were in the past, people might be forced to pay more attention to their driving. No matter whether that idea is good or bad, it won’t sell in a country where too many people “inside” motor vehicles already die each year.
Nobody is going to buy the idea of killing more motor-vehicle occupants to save vulnerable road users in the U.S. because this is a country of drivers. Most of the vulnerable road users themselves are regular drivers.
Some of them are even more regular drivers than in the past because they fear other drivers. A startling number of people in Alaska’s largest city drive their bikes to Anchorage’s Kincaid or Hillside parks so they can then ride those bikes.
The irony there is only heightened by the fact many of the same people are concerned about manmade carbon dioxide and the role it plays in climate change. But clearly, person safety, or convenience, trumps global warming.
So what to do? Live with it and die with it? Build a better system of bike and pedestrian pathways to reduce interactions between human-powered transportation and motor-powered transportation?
Getting more people moving on foot or on bikes decreases traffic congestion and promotes good health that could help save the country a fortune in health care costs, but drivers – who are the vast majority of U.S. road users – think of any dollar spent on anything other than road improvements a loss to them.
Ideally, everyone could simply “Share the Road” as the signs around Anchorage say, but the data indicates that sharing simply means the unarmored players lose.
Another pedestrian died in Anchorage on Monday.
“The preliminary investigation found that the adult male driver of (a) pickup was traveling eastbound on Fourth Avenue when he struck an adult female pedestrian crossing the street at Fourth Avenue and Karluk Street,” the Anchorage Police Department reported. “The female victim was in a crosswalk and had nearly completed crossing before she was struck. She was pronounced deceased at the scene.
“Impairment (of the driver) is not believed to be a factor, however poor visibility is believed to be a factor. There have been no arrests.”
“Poor visibility” would suggest a driver should slow down to be able to stop if something appears in the roadway, but when driving around in a fully protected modern motor vehicle, who thinks about slowing down simply because of the weather?
Our technology has come to sometimes own us more than we own it, and that modern reality appears to be killing people.