The deadly myth that human error causes most car crashes

More than 20,000 people died on US roads from January to June, the highest total for the first half of any year since 2006. The number of road deaths in the United States has increased by more than 10% over the past decade, even though they have fallen in most of the developed world. In the European Union, whose population is a third larger than that of the United States, road deaths fell 36% between 2010 and 2020, to 18,800. This downward trend is not accidental : European regulators have pushed automakers to build vehicles that are safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and governments regularly adjust the design of roads after an accident to reduce the risk of recurrence.

But in the United States, much of the responsibility for road safety rests with the individual sitting behind the wheel, on a bicycle, or crossing the street. U.S. transportation departments, law enforcement, and news organizations frequently claim that most accidents – in fact, 94% of them, according to the most widely released statistics – are due to human error alone. . Blaming the bad decisions of road users implies that no one else could have stopped them. This allows automakers to deflect attention from their decisions to add weight and height to SUVs and trucks that account for an ever-increasing share of vehicle sales, and it allows traffic engineers to escape. to the scrutiny of dangerous street designs.

The recently passed infrastructure bill will encourage some safety improvements, including technology to prevent drunk people from driving a car and better crash tests to manage risks to people outside of a vehicle. Yet even as the federal government prepares to shell out hundreds of billions of dollars for road works, the fundamental American misconception that road deaths are just a profusion of individual mistakes will remain big. uncorrected part.

In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the US Department of Transportation, released a two-page memo stating that “the critical reason, which is the last event in the causal chain of the accident, was attributed to driver in 94% of accidents. The note, which was based on NHTSA’s own crash analysis, then offered a key caveat: of the crash.

To understand what the NHTSA was trying to say, imagine the following scenario: It’s a foggy day and the driver of an SUV is driving down a road at the posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour. The limit then drops to 25 as the road approaches a town, but the lanes of the road do not narrow (which would naturally require a driver to brake), and the only sign announcing the lower speed limit is partially obstructed. Unaware of the change, the driver continues to drive at 40. Entering town, a pedestrian crosses the road at an intersection with no red light. The driver hits the pedestrian.

As defined by the federal government, the “critical reason” for this hypothetical accident – the last event in the causal chain – is the error made by the driver who was driving at high speed at the time of the collision. Almost certainly the police will hold him responsible. But that neglects many other factors: foggy weather obscured the driver’s vision; faulty traffic engineering failed to force it to slow down as it approached the intersection; the weight of the SUV made the force of the impact much greater than that of a sedan would have been.

The authors of the 2015 NHTSA report were aware of these contributing factors. But their warning that the “critical reason” for an accident is not the same as the “cause” has been largely ignored. Even one page on the agency’s website narrows the message down to “94% of serious accidents are due to human error.”

Trying to find a single cause for a crash is a fundamentally flawed approach to road safety, but it underpins much of U.S. law enforcement and crash prevention. After a collision, the police file a report, noting who broke the traffic laws and generally ignoring factors such as the design of the road and the vehicle. Insurance companies are also structured to hold someone accountable. Drivers are not the only ones who face such judgments. Following an accident, a pedestrian can be blamed for crossing a street without a crosswalk (even if the closest is 400 meters away) and a cyclist can be accused of not wearing a helmet (although a protected cycle lane would have completely prevented the crash). The various facts reinforce these accounts, with stories limited to the driver who drove at high speed or the pedestrian who crossed against the light.

Indeed, journalists broadcast the misleading 94 percent line on influential platforms, including The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, and The Washington Post. Research institutes such as the University of Michigan and the University of Idaho have also done this. Even former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao helped to create confusion, as did transportation departments in states such as Illinois, Utah, and Texas.

“The 94% line is a repeated benchmark in almost every state [department of transportation] conference I’ve never been to, ”Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told me. When Michigan DOT spokesman Jeff Cranson speculated in a 2019 podcast that human error is actually responsible for more than 95% of crashes, Michigan State University engineering professor Timothy Gates, replied, “Yes, I agree with that, there are very few accidents caused by a defect in the vehicle or a defect in the road, this is largely human error. It’s a practical prospect for engineers who design vehicles and roads.

And if the money stops with the driver, automakers feel less pressure to make vital safety features standard on all of their models, which many of them don’t. Last year, Consumer reports found that the average vehicle buyer would have to pay $ 2,500 for a blind spot detection system. Pedestrian detection technology was standard on 13 of the 15 most popular vehicle models, but was not available on one and was part of an optional $ 16,000 package on another.

With responsibility falling on those directly involved in an accident, it’s no surprise that so many road safety efforts revolve around education campaigns, assuming that if people were just more careful, all would be well. State NHTSA and DOT officials pour millions of dollars into these programs, but the benefits appear modest at best. Officials “see their role as trying to coax people on the roads into making smarter decisions,” Seth LaJeunesse, senior associate researcher at the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of Carolina, told me. North. “Wear a seat belt, don’t get drunk while driving and signal appropriately. I think it is misguided. After all, who is going to tackle the structural problems, if they are just stupid people on the road? “

For now, the idea that human error causes almost all accidents is a useful topic of discussion for manufacturers of autonomous vehicle technology, which is supposed to prevent such errors. Companies such as General Motors, Google and startup Aurora have touted the 94% statistic in promotional materials, press releases and even SEC filings. But, as Phil Koopman, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, pointed out, autonomous systems will make their own mistakes down the road. He doesn’t expect VAs to reduce accidents by more than 50%, even in the best of circumstances. And a future of fully autonomous driving is still at least decades away, suggesting that AVs won’t reverse the rising death toll on American roads for many years to come, if they ever do.

With the infrastructure bill now enacted, the federal government has the opportunity to rethink its approach and messages. Getting rid of the dangerous 94% myth would be a good start; not focusing on unnecessary public relations campaigns on road safety would also help. Encouraging state and local transportation agencies, not just law enforcement, to investigate accidents, which New York City is currently doing, would be even better. What we need most is a reexamination of how automakers, traffic engineers, and community members, as well as the traveling public, together bear the responsibility of saving a few. thousands of lives lost each year on American roads. Blaming human error alone is practical, but it puts all Americans at risk.

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