OPINION: Why is the US seeing record road deaths?


By Dr Mike Lenné, head of human factors at Seeing Machines

Figures from the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released at the beginning of February estimated that there were 31,720 fatalities from motor vehicle traffic crashes during the first nine months of 2021, compared to 28,325 fatalities for the corresponding period in the previous year, representing an increase of 12%.

Alarmingly, this is the highest percentage increase since records began in 1975 and could indicate an alarming upward trend.

Historically, deaths from driver behavior have overwhelmingly represented the main cause of traffic death and injury: Distracted driving, drowsy driving, drunk driving, speeding and not wearing a safety belt continue to be the leading factors in these otherwise preventable crashes.

Throughout the years, campaigns and organizations have made great strides in educating the public as to the dangers of driving while not fully engaged, along with continued improvements in road infrastructure and vehicle occupant protection. Consequently, traffic deaths have fallen from a high of 51,091 in 1980 to 36,096 in 2019.

There is still a long way to go in reducing road-related deaths and major injuries, but an answer could literally be staring the driver right in the eyes.

The risk of death and injury on our roads can be mitigated by driver monitoring systems (DMS), which utilize small, discreet cameras pointed toward the driver to determine if the driver is distracted, drowsy or impaired. Using advanced algorithms and optical technology, DMS is a closed loop system, meaning that any information collected stays on board the vehicle.

DMS is not designed to collect data and “tattle” on the driver, rather it enables the vehicle to warn the driver, in real-time, when he/she is too distracted or impaired to drive. DMS is also looking for instances when the driver is falling asleep. When this occurs, the system can warn the driver with a tailored warning, likely visual or auditory, with the potential to escalate as required.

Driver assist systems are growing in popularity. Two of the big three US automakers have announced that new vehicles will be available this year that will allow for some hands-free use while driving. Internationally, there is a growing number of companies offering hands-free driving now. More importantly, all the world’s major OEMs plan to launch similar technologies within the next two to three years.

So, how many lives and serious injuries could DMS prevent? Thousands… every year!

DMS is in the early stages of deployment and therefore scientific reports are not yet available to demonstrate real world crash and injury reductions. However, a recent study reported that connected vehicle and driver assistance technologies could reduce crashes in light vehicles by up to 33%. These figures are impossible to ignore.

To place that in context, traffic deaths fell 29% in the 39 years between 1980 and 2019. If we were to apply a conservative effectiveness rate of 30% and assume high levels of DMS penetration in the vehicle fleet to address distraction, drowsiness, and intoxication in 2019, we estimate that up to 4,200 fatalities and 315,000 injuries could have been prevented. Even if we reduce the effectiveness rate to 10% and allow for a ramp up to high levels of DMS penetration over several years, there remains a dramatic improvement to the prevention of road trauma.

The US Congress has also taken notice. Acting on the NTSB recommendations, legislation recently passed the House which would require widespread use of DMS technology. In the Senate, the SAFE Act, which would require NHTSA to begin a federal rulemaking on DMS technology, was included in the bipartisan infrastructure package and at the time of writing, is expected to soon pass the Senate. As the House and Senate consider highway and vehicle safety, DMS looks set to be a key safety solution as part of a larger transportation and infrastructure package.

About the author:

Dr Mike Lenné, general manager for fleet and head of human factors, Seeing Machines

Lenné is a global authority on human factors and safety. Following an esteemed academic career as a professor in human factors at the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC), he moved to Seeing Machines in 2014 and has held executive roles leading both technology and commercial businesses. Currently he leads the human factors, machine intelligence and advanced engineering teams that design and develop next generation technologies. Working with government, industry, and global policy groups he promotes operator state monitoring technology, making the world’s roads and skies safer.

Lead image: Adobe Stock

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