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Traffic deaths are up despite advancements in vehicle safety systems

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Market Trends
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A new mainstream media report is drawing attention to an increase in traffic fatalities despite an increase in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) meant to make vehicles safer.

The NBC affiliate article was the latest to draw a parallel between increased safety features and last year’s projected roadway deaths being up nearly 10% over 2020’s figures.

The 42,915 people killed in traffic crashes last year was also 26% higher than 2010’s 32,885 deaths, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data.

NBC noted that cyclists and pedestrians have been disproportionately affected by the uptick, with deaths among them rising 60% within the span of a decade.

“We don’t know exactly what’s going on with the increase in pedestrian fatalities. It certainly seems like the increase in bigger vehicles is contributing to it,” said Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). “Many studies have shown that larger vehicles like SUVs and pickups are more likely to kill or seriously injure pedestrians and cyclists when they’re involved in a crash.”

IIHS has made a number of efforts to reduce pedestrian deaths, including:

There are a number of other ADAS features such as lane departure warnings and forward pedestrian impact avoidance meant to prevent collisions but those systems can’t reverse the trend on their own, said Joe Young, IIHS spokesman.

“Crash avoidance technologies and improvements in vehicle design are making new cars safer than ever,” Young told Repairer Driven News. “There are a few reasons we’re not seeing these improvements translate into broader safety gains. For one, there are other factors at play that are pushing fatalities in the wrong direction. …we started to see an increase in fatalities related to dangerous behaviors start to surge with the pandemic. This included increased speeding, more impaired driving, and more people being killed while unbelted. Despite returning to pre-pandemic traffic volumes, we’re still seeing the effects of these behaviors. Crashing at a higher speed quickly cancels out any safety benefits from improved crashworthiness, for example.

“Another factor is how long it takes these safety improvements to filter into the vehicle fleet. The average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is over 12 years and that number has been creeping up. Our estimates show that in 2022, only about 23% of registered vehicles had automatic emergency braking, for example, and that isn’t expected to hit 95% until 2045, so the proven benefits from that technology are not yet fully realized. It’s a similar story when we look at other technologies and improvements to vehicle structure and restraints that can help people survive crashes.”

He added that automakers have consistently stepped up to meet new regulations or improve crashworthiness and that additional work can be done to improve roadway safety in the future.

“There are several systems automakers could implement that would make a big difference (such as better seat belt reminders across the board and intelligent speed assist) but even if every new car had those today it would still take a long time to see the benefits,” Young said. “We also need to look at other ways to improve safety on our roadways. We think a good place to start is with speed and speed limits. Lowering vehicle speeds would go a long way in improving the situation. This could involve lowering speed limits, stepping up enforcement, redesigning roads, or some combination. More broadly, we need to examine how we can incorporate all aspects of the Safe System approach, which assumes that humans are going to make mistakes.”

Although traffic fatalities are higher than they were 10 years ago, they’re beginning to drop from 2021’s 42,939 deaths, which represented a 16-year high.

NHTSA shared new data in June that shows traffic fatalities dropped 3.3% during Q1 2023, representing the fourth consecutive quarterly decline.

The federal agency said its initial projections show that 9,330 people were killed on U.S. roadways during the first three months of 2023, fewer than the 9,645 people who died during the same period last year.

The projected decrease in deaths was despite more drivers hitting the road, NHTSA added.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at the time that more work must be done to reduce traffic fatalities.

“After spiking during the pandemic, traffic deaths have been on a slow but consistent decline for the past year,” he said. “This is an encouraging sign as we work to reverse the rise in roadway deaths, but there is much more work ahead to reinforce this downward trend and make it permanent.”


Featured image: Tashi-Delek/iStock

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