Deaths on US roads rise, even as cars get safer

Cars and trucks are stuck after a fatal pile-up of multiple vehicles on the ice-covered I-35 in a still image from video in Fort Worth, Texas, February 11, 2021.

CNB5 | via Reuters

The new vehicles on sale in the United States today are the safest and most advanced ever made, but the number of road deaths last year hit its highest level in 16 years.

The problem is complex: it is a combination of reckless or distracted driving, largely due to cell phone use; increased sales of trucks and SUVs; and improved vehicle performance, among other factors. Moreover, the expected proliferation of electric vehicles, with heavy batteries and record performance, may not solve the problem in the future.

“We have a divisive culture in America around cars,” said Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. “People want these flashy, expensive items and we want to be able to do whatever we want in our cars, but at the same time we’re killing each other at an (almost) higher rate than ever before, and something needs to be done. “

An estimated 42,915 people died in road crashes in 2021, a 10.5% increase from 38,824 deaths in 2020 and the highest rate since 2005, according to National Highway Traffic data. Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation.

Compared to 2019, death rates rose 18% – the largest two-year increase since 1946, when crashes rose 37.6% from 1944 levels, according to NHTSA data analyzed by CNBC.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the situation “a crisis on America’s roads that we must solve together”, while praising the Biden administration’s efforts to reverse the deadly trend.

But reversing the death rate on American roads is not an easy problem to solve.

For one thing, safety watchdog NHTSA is woefully slow to pass new guidelines or laws. And the vehicles consumers are buying now – including increasingly popular electric vehicles – are faster and heavier than current cars, potentially posing a greater risk to pedestrians and people in older vehicles. and smaller.

Weight and performance

Vehicle weight and horsepower are estimated at record highs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

These record numbers are of particular concern to security advocates. “The heavier the vehicle and the taller the vehicle, the more likely it is to kill a pedestrian and the more likely it will not be compatible with the small sedan and cause serious damage,” Brooks said.

The EPA reports that average vehicle horsepower has risen steadily for more than a decade and is up nearly 80 percent from 1975. Preliminary data for the 2021 model year averaged 246 horsepower, some newer ones exceeding 700 horsepower or more. .

Average weight has also increased as truck sales have increased in recent years and hit a record high of more than 4,100 pounds in the 2021 model year, according to the EPA.

While large trucks and SUVs may have luxury price tags and high-tech safety features, their extra weight can be especially dangerous for pedestrians. According to studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, these vehicles are deadlier to pedestrians than cars and are much more likely to hit pedestrians when cornering.

“The higher ride height usually gives you a longer view of the road, but one of the trade-offs, especially in a large vehicle, is the fact that there’s a section of road right in front of your vehicle that is blind to you,” said David Zuby, director of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

NHTSA estimates that more than 7,300 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles in 2021, a 13% increase from the previous year.

“The bigger the vehicle, the heavier it is, the more deadly it is in a crash, especially with vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “The trend to drive bigger and heavier trucks comes at the expense of everyone outside the vehicle.”

Electric vehicles pose their own additional risk to American roads. Electric vehicles often weigh more than their internal combustion engine counterparts due to the weight of their batteries. Conversely, many newer electric vehicles are equipped with the latest safety technologies.

Performance is also higher in many electric vehicles. For example, the 9,000+ pound Hummer EV, which is more than twice the weight of an average vehicle, has a Watts to Freedom mode, or WTF, which launches the truck from 0 to 60 mph in about three seconds. The function can be used anywhere. This is an acceleration time previously exclusive to sports cars.

And safety experts are still studying whether electric vehicles catch fire more or less often than traditional vehicles.

Changing behaviors

Research shows that it’s not just vehicles that change.

Americans collectively drove the fewest cumulative miles in 18 years in 2020 when coronavirus lockdowns reduced travel, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Many assumed that fewer miles driven would mean fewer accidents. But in fact, drivers were more reckless and reckless, and the death toll rose, according to authorities and federal data.

Similarly for 2021, a higher number of fatalities corresponded to an increase of about 325 billion miles driven, or about 11.2%, from 2020, according to preliminary data reported by the FHA.

Despite the extra miles traveled, the fatality rate based on miles traveled remained about the same as in 2020. Estimates put the fatality rate for 2021 at 1.33 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, compared to 1 .34 deaths the previous year.

Experts say reversing the trend in deaths requires a combination of regulatory and behavioral changes.

Simple driver-based changes like traveling at lower gears or buckling up might help. NHTSA reports that the number of unrestrained occupant deaths has increased nearly 21% since 2019.

“It seems like the main component of this increase in deaths is very behavioral, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop it. We just have to be prepared to do it,” Brooks said.

Vehicle safety advocates also say standardizing new technologies such as automatic emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring can help reduce crashes and fatalities. The majority of fatalities involve vehicles that are 10 years old or older and not equipped with the latest safety technologies.

“It takes a while for vehicles with new technology to seep into the population,” Chase said. “That’s why it’s so important to require these technologies to be included as standard equipment in new cars, not just options and premium vehicles, as is the case now.”

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