Traffic-Death Increase Remains A Head-Scratcher As Labor Day Looms

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At least two things are undoubtedly true about traffic on American roads as we approach Labor Day. The first is that this weekend will be one of the busiest of the year, as always, a prediction whose veracity is probably clinched by the fact that gasoline prices finally have been easing the last several weeks.

The second fact is just as true but more of a head-scratcher: Americans this year are dying on our roadways in numbers that are the worst in 20 years, after a 2021 in which U.S. traffic fatalities of nearly 43,000 marked a 16-year high.

A number of factors had improved safety on the roads over the previous couple of decades, including better equipment, more safety regulations, safer highways, and the rising average age of drivers. There was great alarm beginning about 10 years ago concerning so-called distracted driving after it became clear that the average American was determined to text, email or otherwise engage in internet communications while driving, despite one precisely aimed public-service advertising campaign after another.

Rashid Galadanci is one of the people trying to figure out the riddle of the bounceback in traffic deaths in the last couple of years after nearly two decades of steady improvement in that fateful statistic. Meanwhile, he’s CEO and co-founder of Driver Technologies, an AI-based mobility-tech company with an app that makes the driving experience safer. He founded Driver Technologies to share the benefits of advanced vehicle technologies without barriers to access and to improve safety for everyone.

He agrees that one reason the rising number of traffic deaths doesn’t seem to make sense is that the last several years have seen the advance of one assisted-driving system after another in new vehicles, including blind-spot warnings, lane-departure nudges, adaptive cruise control that discourages tailgating, automatic braking and drowsiness detection. It was assumed by many that the spread of those technologies in more vehicles, now up and down the price spectrum, was helping offset the carelessness brought by texting while driving and helping continue to drive the fatality total lower.

“But it was misleading to think that way,” Galadanci explained. “People didn’t get the picture of the adoption curve of these technologies. It’s people in the upper echelons of society that buy and lease new cars and cycle through them on a two- or three-year basis. Everyone else doesn’t do that. The average car in the U.S. is still 12 years old, and only 10% have any of these adaptive safety features at all.”

Auto dealers typically like to buy and sell used cars “that they can move off their lot easily, not ones with all the bells and whistles” such as expensive automated-safety systems. Besides, Galadanci added, few commercial vehicles are outfitted with the latest in automated safety systems.

All of that helps explain the latest traffic-death debacle, but only to a small extent. What’s really been happening, Galadanci said in echoing other traffic-safety analysts, is that because there were far fewer cars on the road during the pandemic, especially in urban commutes, “people began driving much faster during Covid, which leads to more accidents and higher fatality rate,” Galadanci said. “You’d think it would be safer if there were fewer cars on the road, but people drive so much faster because there’s less traffic. And the outcomes aren’t good.”

One potential factor that could be adding to traffic deaths is more driving under the influence of marijuana, which is legal for recreational use in more and more states. Michigan is among traffic-safety regimes that increasingly is warning motorists about driving while high, with digital signs that say, “If you feel different, you drive different.”

But Galadanci isn’t willing to lay blame at the feet of cannabis consumption without more study. “Though there is some pretty compelling research,” he said, “that people have been a lot more stressed out lately because they’re concerned about their livelihoods and their health.”

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