Automakers promised the technology would make the roads safer. This is not the case.


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Earlier this week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published the latest statistics on road accidents. It is a “sinister reading”, the latter being a phrasing that regularly appears in news articles about death statistics on American roads over the past half-century. 42,915 people died trying to get where they needed to go on American roads last year. That’s 117 people on average every day, which is about the number of people you can fit on a large regional jet. A plane that falls every day for an entire year.

And there is no identifiable and isolated trend that can explain this. More and more people of all ages and genders in all parts of the country are dying on all types of roads, at all times of the day and night, in all driving conditions and in all types of vehicles. .

When road deaths in the United States rose sharply in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, experts offered various theories as to why that might be. The disappearance of traffic allowing faster speeds was the first and most popular theory, followed by a strange claim of general antisociability and people basically act like assholes because of the lasting effects of pandemic life, of which aggressive driving was only a symptom. What these explanations never took into account was that, at least with respect to road deaths, the trend was almost completely isolated from the United States. While virtually every other OECD country – mostly higher-income “developed” countries in economics jargon – has been able to sustain or even accelerate decades-long trends to make roads safer during the pandemic, the United States continued its years of retreat by making its roads more dangerous for everyone. People in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Australia are about four times less likely to die in a traffic accident than US residents, according to OECD estimates. People in the UK and Japan are five times less likely to die on their roads. Canadians are about 2.5 times less likely to die on their roads. These trends predate COVID.

While security advocates reacted to the news with concern and rightly called it a preventable public health crisis, some took the opportunity to tout the technology’s potential to turn the tide. Ariel Wolf, a former Trump administration Department of Transportation lawyer who now represents the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, was widely quoted in press reports this week by repeating the myth that “risky driving behaviors” are at the root of this public health crisis and that the 42,915 deaths “are a reminder of why the autonomous vehicle industry is dedicated to the development and deployment of technologies that save lives. Audio-visual vehicles — ones that don’t speed up, become impaired, or get distracted — can help radically improve safety on American roads.

It’s ridiculous to point to unproven technology as the cure for a public health crisis that other countries have made huge strides in solving, like flagging down firefighters pulling up in front of your burning house with hoses. water because someone is supposed to be on the way with an innovative method of extinguishing fires. It’s also very much in line with how U.S. officials and automakers have historically reacted to such a “sinister reading.” Autonomous vehicles and semi-autonomous safety technology have been touted as the next big innovation in safety for years. Like the Reuters Automotive Bulletin underline, deaths have risen even as cars are fitted with more safety technologies than ever before, such as automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection and lane-keeping assist. Even if car manufacturers refrain from promising safety improvements for legal reasons, they clearly imply that in marketing, with ads showing cars braking automatically to avoid hitting someone then a happy family that continues to live its life. The problem with technologies such as automatic braking is they work best at low speeds when people are unlikely to be seriously injured in an accident anyway.

Automakers, safety officials and transportation departments locally and nationally have touted these technologies as solutions to the road fatality crisis. Ten years ago, few vehicles on the road had them. Now many more do, although we don’t know for sure how many, because automakers won’t share this data and the government won’t track it. But many of these safety features, like automatic braking, are increasingly available, even on lower-end car models. If they actually made a statistically significant difference in preventing people from dying, the roads should be safer now. They are not.

But none of this is likely to stop us from starting the cycle again, with new technologies promising to make roads safer and government officials pulling out all the stops. The lure of magical technology that will solve everything is too strong. This is strong for government officials who have nothing to do but keep promising a better future and waiting for the technology to take effect. It’s even stronger for automakers and their suppliers who can sell ever larger and more dangerous vehicles laden with expensive electronics for more profit without being subject to effective but potentially unwanted safety regulations. And it’s strongest for the American public, the vast majority of whom rely on these dangerous machines to live their daily lives, because we can continue to blame accidents on individual error, on the nut behind the wheel, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Road deaths are the product of systemic problems in road design, traffic laws and the lack of safe alternatives. It’s much easier to live our lives imagining that all 42,915 people did something wrong to deserve their fate. It is much less comforting to recognize that it was no coincidence.

Proven ways to reduce road deaths – building and maintaining robust public transit systems that work well, lowering speed limits and redesigning roads to make speeds seem scarier so people slow down naturally, expanding cycling infrastructure and countless other useful measures – are hard work that pisses a lot of people off at first. None of us want to think that we or someone we love will be one of the approximately 42,915 people who will die this year doing the same thing. But it will happen, because it does every year, and it will continue, because technology will not save us, no matter how much we hope for it.

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