The Bloody 2-Year Rise in Car Fatalities Will Only Get Bloodier

Highway deaths will keep going up, year after year, as long as people are behind the wheel.

Speed, alcohol, and distraction: these are the three things that are combining with cars to kill more Americans over the past two years than at any time in the past 50 years. According to numbers released by the National Safety Council this week, the years 2015 and 2016 will be remembered as the bloodiest two-year increase in 53 years of American highway history. 

Those three factors are only window dressing on the But the truth is, it’s people who are doing the killingAnd it will only get worse. 

When the numbers are finally tallied, they will add up to more than 40,000 highway deaths—part of a two-year increase that stands in stark contrast to the fact that the cars themselves are safer than they’ve ever been. It’s the drivers who are getting more dangerous. 

The NSC survey portrays American drivers as lazy, self-involved, complacent and oblivious to the growing part they play in killing more Americans than prescription drug overdoses. According to the study, a stunning 64 percent are comfortable speeding, and 47 percent are fine with texting either manually or through voice controls. Ten percent admit to driving after they’d had too much to drink, and 13 percent after smoking weed.

For every step forward the safety engineers at the OEMs take, the customers who buy the cars and drive them take two wobbly, distracted steps back. 

“Our complacency is killing us,” said NSC President and CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman. “The U.S. lags the rest of the developed world in addressing highway fatalities. We know what needs to be done; we just haven’t done it.” 

Sure we know what needs to be done. When Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980, there were 51,000 traffic fatalities. MADD’s aggressive lobbying and vivid marketing campaigns led to sobriety checkpoints, a nationwide 0.08% BAC limit, and some of the toughest drunk driving laws in the developed world. The link it forged between drinking, driving, and death, is one of the most successful outcomes in modern social engineering.

So what do we do now that literally half the driving nation today feels fine texting, emailing, googling, Waze-ing, etc., behind the wheel of a car? The only solution is to ban the use of smartphones the same way we’ve gone after drugs and alcohol. 

The NSC states that we need to redouble our efforts against impairment—especially phones. It advocates extending “laws banning all cell phone use – including hands-free – to all drivers, not just teens; upgrade enforcement from secondary to primary in states with existing bans.”

It took nearly a decade for the efforts of MADD to impact the numbers. With a 6% increase over the next 10 years, we’re back to the bad old bloody days in no time at all. As autonomous driving technology rolls out in new cars—including lane assist, brake assist—some of the impact of distracted driving will be softened. 

But can we afford to wait?