The idea that human error is responsible for 94% of road accidents is “a deadly myth”, says David Zipper. write in AtlanticZipper, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, says blaming crashes on drivers’ poor decisions implies no one else could have prevented them.
“It allows automakers to take the focus away from their decisions to add weight and height to SUVs and trucks that account for an ever larger share of vehicle sales, and it allows traffic engineers to escape scrutiny for dangerous street designs,” Zipper writes.
Zipper’s article appeared after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported last October that more than 20,000 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021, an 18.4% increase from 2020 and the highest number of deaths during this period since 2006.
“It’s a crisis,” said US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who announced that the US Department of Transportation plans to produce its first-ever national road safety strategy in response to the numbers. “We cannot and should not accept these deaths as simply part of everyday life in America.”
Buttigieg is right. The death rate on our roads, which is significantly higher than that of other highly motorized developed countries like Australia, the UK, Germany and Sweden, is unacceptable. But NHTSA’s own research into the 2021 peak suggests the so-called deadly Zipper myth is actually America’s deadly reality.
Driver error is the number one reason motor vehicles crash and kill.
NHTSA noted in its analysis that pandemic shutdowns and work-from-home guidelines significantly changed driving habits and behaviors in 2020. “Among drivers who stayed on the roads, some engaged in riskier behaviors , including speeding, not wearing a seat belt, and driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs,” NHTSA reported in its October 2021 Traffic Safety Facts research report. speeding and not wearing seat belts remained high in 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic period. Changes in the use of alcohol and other types of drugs [were] also documented.”
The automobile did not fundamentally change in the first half. The road systems haven’t changed either. Driver behavior has, and that is why fatal accidents have increased.
Driving a modern car, truck or SUV, most of which are equipped with automatic transmissions, power steering, anti-lock brakes and stability control systems, is not difficult. Most of us find this much easier than playing the piano or juggling chainsaws. And that is precisely the problem. Nowadays, we can get where we want to go with a surprisingly low level of attention to the driving process. And each time we arrive at our destination in one piece, we subconsciously reinforce this behavior.
Too many people are dying on our roads because too many drivers just aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing and what’s going on around them.
Zendrive, a transportation data analytics company, says that in nearly 17% of all crashes analyzed in 2020, a phone was used in one of the vehicles 5 seconds before impact. The Federal Highway Administration says more than 50% of the combined total of injuries and fatalities occur at or near intersections, the majority of which have roads controlled by at least one traffic light or stop sign. In nearly 17% of fatal crashes involving large trucks, NHTSA said those killed were in the vehicles that rammed the trucks.
No matter how hard automakers work on active and passive safety systems, no matter how safe our roads are, humans…disinterested or distracted or drunk or drugged at the wheel – will always be the weak link in the system. Because to err is human.
“Drive according to the conditions and don’t drive faster than you can see,” my father said when he taught me to drive in our old Land Rover many years ago. “And don’t assume anyone else on the road knows what they’re doing.”
Still, it’s good advice.