Our nation’s streets, roadways and thoroughfares are an increasingly dangerous place to be. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports the number of highway deaths in the first six months of this year spiked 10.4 percent – to 17,775 – as compared to the first six months of 2015. And last year marked the biggest yearly percentage increase in traffic deaths in five decades.
One of the main culprits? Distraction.
Specifically, our gadgets, and in particular, those that are intended for use in a moving vehicle. There is hands-free calling, which research has shown is no safer than use of handheld devices, despite the disparity in Florida law and in laws across the country. There is an app on Snapchat that allows drivers to post images of the the driver while recording his or her speed. There is an app called Waze that gives users points for immediately reporting traffic crashes and snarled traffic. Then of course there is the Pokemon Go app that has prompted drivers to search for virtual creatures along their route. All of this collectively amounts to a much different landscape of distraction than just a decade ago when we first starting talking about, “distracted driving.”
Back around 2005 or so, the nation was talking about how problematic it was that so many people were using their cell phones to send text messages. At the time, most people didn’t even have the smartphones we’re so familiar with today. Now, according to a Pew Research poll conducted in 2015, half of users say they, “couldn’t live without” their smartphone. Text messages continue to be the most popular feature, but internet use, video calls, email, video and music are also popular features.
Mark Rosekind, head of the NHTSA, told The New York Times recently that the uptick in traffic deaths signals a “crisis.”
For example in Florida, the state highway patrol is investigating a fatal crash just outside of Tampa where five people were killed and video evidence suggests one of the drivers, a teen, was using Snapchat to record himself driving 115 mph. Meanwhile, there is a lawsuit pending in Georgia that alleges a 2015 crash in Atlanta was caused by a teen using Snapchat while driving more than 100 mph. Her vehicle collided with an Uber driver, who was seriously hurt.
Concerned about the trend, the U.S. Department of Transportation three months ago collaborated with the National Safety Council and other traffic advocacy groups to plan a strategy that would eliminate traffic deaths in three decades. This approach involves outlining plans that include pushing for all states to tighten or enforce laws that require seat belt use in cars, helmets for those in motorcycles and increased penalties for drunk drivers and distracted drivers. Other longer-term goals would include fast-tracking things like autonomous driving technology to help prevent collisions and to help remove distraction from drivers.
As it stands now, the majority of vehicle manufacturers are producing cars that have the ability to connect to smartphones and give users the ability to call, text and use hands-free apps and interfaces. Car makers say these features improve safety by allowing customers to concentrate on driving while they are still engaged and interacting and communicating. Safety advocates say it’s simply not possible for humans to do both at the same time. Plus, the increased availability of all this technology behind the wheel may encourage people to use the features even more than they would otherwise while driving. As we know, freeing a driver’s hand doesn’t necessarily clear their mind for the task at hand.
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Biggest Spike in Traffic Deaths in 50 Years? Blame Apps, Nov. 15, 2016, By Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times
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