Why this could be the deadliest driving year in nearly a decade

September 15, 2015, 10:00 AM UTC
Two damaged cars after crash, close-up
Photograph by Getty Images

This year may well shape up to have the most car-related deaths in the U.S. since 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) and the National Safety Council (NSC).

NHTSA reports auto-related deaths increased 9.5% in the first three months of the year; NSC says there has been a 14% jump in the first six months. (The groups use different statistical methodology.) Car-related deaths are now expected to surpass 40,000, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing NSC data.

By next year, NHTSA says its researchers will have a better handle on the 2015 fatality total, as well as key factors bearing on fatal accidents. Though the statistics are preliminary, they point to a larger, troubling trend: a spike in traffic deaths, after years of decline.

Experts agree the most common causes for fatal car accidents are speeding, intoxication and failure to use seat belts. With a more robust economy, along with cheaper fuel prices, more people are driving and, therefore, more exposed to the outcome from a mistake or bad decision behind the wheel — or another motorist’s bad decision.

Still, the role of cellphones is being analyzed, too. NSC estimates one in four car crashes involve a cell phone, the Wall Street Journal notes.

The news also comes in the midst of a spirited debate among automakers, regulators and safety experts as to what technology could be used to prevent accidents – even as the proliferation of smartphones has been linked to distracted driving. Drivers are texting, face-timing, taking selfies and posting on Facebook while trying to keep one eye on the road. Some studies suggest that telephone conversations, even with hands-free technology, can be highly distracting. Although many states have laws prohibiting handheld cellphone use, no states ban all cellphone use.

“The incredible connectivity enabled by technology has resulted in a very dangerous environment behind the wheel,” Deborah Hersman, NSC chief executive officer told Consumer Affairs, a website. “While the public understands the risks associated with distracted driving, the data shows the behavior continues – we need better education, laws and enforcement to make our roads safer for everyone.”

The NSC favors a ban of cellphones during driving, even with hands-free technology. Automakers have collaborated with parts manufacturers to introduce technology that minimizes the distractions of car-based telephony such as voice controls and, most recently, BMW’s “gesture control.”

Automakers have developed heads-up displays (HUD), which project information holographically in front of drivers so they needn’t take their eyes from the road to check speed, direction or which song is playing on the radio. Common sense and automotive research suggests that the technology may help an otherwise distracted driver pay more attention to road conditions.

But Hersman, a former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, and the NSC are cautious, since HUD technology isn’t regulated: “If a heads-up display can warn of a collision or a grade crossing ahead and a train coming, that may actually help,” she told the New York Times. “But if it puts up an iPod playlist or sends a restaurant reservation, that may distract from the task of driving.”

The steady introduction of technology in vehicles such as adaptive cruise control portends a day when vehicles can safely drive themselves, removing human error and possibly reducing accidents drastically. On Monday, ten automakers announced they would install automatic emergency braking, which could lessen the number of car-related deaths dramatically.