Is the Goal of Zero Traffic Fatalities in 30 Years Likely?

Technology may assist in making the seemingly optimistic goal of zero traffic fatalities a reality

Perspective is important. The reason we can generally ignore traffic fatalities is we rarely know the individual who dies. In the U.S., based on the number of deaths last year, 96 people die every day. Every day. This year the numbers have increased, meaning we could exceed 100 deaths per day by year-end. But they don’t occur in your town in West Virginia. So you don’t hear of most of them.

Imagine if instead of considering the incremental death toll, we looked at the cost, in lives over a decade or two. A hundred deaths a day for 10 years totals 350,000 dead, or 700,000 dead in two decades. Imagine all of the parents today whose children will never reach their age, of the grandchildren who will never be born because their “parents” have died before they were conceived.

From this perspective, the lack of action and the acceptance of this horrific death toll becomes less and less acceptable. In Sweden, twenty years ago, they realized something must be done to eliminate these deaths. Not reduce, but eliminate. Their goal was not a smaller percentage of deaths, but zero deaths.

The Swedes did not merely discuss the tragedy of the situation, but developed a concrete plan called “Vision Zero.” The program notes simply, “No loss of life is acceptable.” They approached the problem systematically, examining each part of the highway system with the understanding that humans will make errors. They then began to attempt to minimize the effect of those errors on human life.

Negligence Is a Given

In 94 out of 100 crashes, human error plays a part. Driving while intoxicated, distraction caused by sending or reading a text, driving too fast for the road conditions or the driver’s capabilities, and driving when exhausted and drowsy are only a few of the examples of bad judgment and negligence committed by drivers every day on the roads of West Virginia.

Not every occurrence results in a crash, an injury or a death. And that gives many drivers a false sense of invulnerability. The defective logic of “I did it once and survived, therefore I can do it again and survive” only works for so many iterations before the inexorable working out of probabilities and the driver and others, do not survive.

Zero Deaths for the U.S.

The US Department of Transportation and its National Highway of Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have announced a plan to achieve zero traffic deaths in 30 years. Today, it seems like overly optimistic wishful thinking. But Sweden has demonstrated that in spite of constant traffic volume increases, they have been able to reduce their number of deaths per 100,000 people to 4. In the U.S., that number is 11.

The DOT and NTHSA are approaching this issue with an increased sense of urgency, as traffic deaths had been suppressed by the reduced economic activity of the Great Recession and the sudden increase last year combined with the increase seen in the first six months of this year means action is needed sooner rather than later.

Self-driving technologies would help greatly, but they are neither mature nor available for wide scale deployment. The federal agencies are looking at a wide spectrum of methods for dealing with this, but they know they must use every tool available from building and designing streets and highways that assume drivers will make negligent decisions to adding electronic devices, like automatic braking systems and vehicle to vehicle communications to turn the needle on the speedometer of death back towards zero.


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