Human Errors Drive Growing Death Toll In Auto Crashes | KUOW News and Information

Human Errors Drive Growing Death Toll In Auto Crashes

Oct 20, 2016
Originally published on October 20, 2016 10:14 am

Our cars and trucks are being made with more safety features. New technologies such as lane departure warnings, blind spot detection, vehicle stabilizers and anti-lock brakes can, and do, save lives.

Yet more people are dying on the nation's roadways — nearly 18,000 in the first six months of this year. That's a huge jump of 10.4 percent over the same time period in 2015, and it's part of a disturbing trend, according to federal officials, because traffic fatalities rose significantly last year, too.

"After decades of progress reducing fatalities, all of a sudden, we're suddenly losing ground," says Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So the government is teaming up with safety advocates, highway designers and others in a new effort to try to reduce the number of traffic fatalities — to zero — within 30 years.

"We have an immediate crisis on our hands and we also have a long-term challenge," Rosekind says.

The tragic toll is seen every day by accident investigators.

"It's an unfortunate thing, but our crash investigators are kept very busy," says Detective Chris Covelli of the Lake County, Ill., Sheriff's Department in Chicago's northern suburbs.

Covelli recalls one crash. On May 5, Stephanie Kostenko was walking along U.S. Highway 12 in Chicago's far northwest suburbs. A little after 2:30 a.m. the 22-year-old was hit from behind by a Ford Mustang and killed.

"This 23-year-old man [who was driving the Mustang] indicated he was traveling between 65 and 70 miles an hour," says Covelli, a speed that is above the posted speed limit of 55 mph.

Additionally, investigators learned the man had been drinking and smoking weed.

"So we had three separate things here playing a factor," Covelli says. "We had excessive speed, we had cannabis in this 23-year-old's system, and we had alcohol in this 23-year-old's system."

Covelli says all three factors in the crash were completely preventable.

"One of the hardest things we ever have to do is go knock on a door at 2 or 3, 4 o'clock in the morning and tell somebody that their loved one has died as a result of a tragic crash, especially when it's a crash that could have been prevented by not drinking, prevented by not using a cellphone, prevented by not consuming alcohol," he says.

Yet traffic fatalities from preventable causes are on the rise all across the U.S.

Last year, 35,092 people died on the nation's roadways, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an increase of 7.2 percent compared to 2014.

The trend continues this year, with NHTSA estimating 17,775 traffic fatalities in the first six month of 2016. That's up 10.4 percent compared to the 16,100 killed on roads in the same period last year.

Some of the rise in traffic accidents and in fatalities is due to the fact that more people are driving more often. Fueled in part by a stronger economy and low gasoline prices, Americans drove a record of more than 3.1 trillion miles last year, up more than 3 percent compared to 2014, according to the Federal Highway Administration. And the number of vehicle miles traveled is up 3.3 percent so far this year, on pace to set another record.

But Rosekind points out that more vehicles on the road, as well as increased numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists, account for only about half of the sharp increase in traffic fatalities, the vast majority of which he says could be prevented by wearing seat belts, slowing down and putting down the phone.

"Ninety-four percent of crashes can be tied back to a human choice or error. Ninety-four percent!" Rosekind says. "Those are the decisions like drinking and driving, speeding or distraction behind the wheel."

Rosekind notes that this is happening at a time when air bags, traction control, stability control and other new technologies are making our vehicles much safer.

"We are in the midst of a public health crisis and it isn't Zika," says Deborah Hersman, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and now president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

She breaks those numbers down, saying it's about 100 people killed on our roads a day, "the equivalent of two regional jets crashing, every day. That would be 14 plane crashes a week," she says.

"If we had 14 plane crashes a week, our hair would be on fire and no one would set foot on an airplane," Hersman adds. "Why do we accept the fatalities that occur on our roadways?"

So the nonprofit National Safety Council and the federal government are working with car and truck manufacturers on new vehicle safety features,such as automatic emergency braking, which will become standard on most vehicles by 2022, and with highway and traffic engineers on safer road designs.

Though these advances will help, Rosekind says the biggest challenge is changing human behavior. New technologies will be able to override some mistakes people make, but not all.

"The technology enthusiasm is just because that's a new tool," he says. "It's not an answer, either, it's just a new tool for us to use."

As for self-driving cars, which may eventually help reduce or eliminate human error and mistakes people make behind the wheel, Rosekind notes that a high tech solution is still a long ways off.

"As much as people talk about fully autonomous drivers, we gotta do stuff now," he says, to better protect the lives of tens of thousands of people dying on our roadways each year.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're also tracking some news that begins with a troubling statistic. Almost 18,000 people died in the first six months of this year on America's roadways. That is a sharp increase over previous years. It's happening, even though cars are supposedly being built to be safer. So the government is teaming up with safety advocates, highway designers and others to try to reduce traffic fatalities to zero within 30 years. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Just after 2:30 in the morning on May 5 of this year, 22-year-old Stephanie Kostenko was walking along the side of U.S. Highway 12 here near the town of Volo in Chicago's far northwest suburbs when she was hit from behind by a Ford Mustang and killed.

CHRIS COVELLI: This 23-year-old man indicated he was traveling between 65 and 70 miles an hour.

SCHAPER: Lake County Sheriff's Detective Chris Covelli says in addition to speeding, the man had been drinking and smoking weed.

COVELLI: So we had three separate things here playing a factor. We had excessive speed. We had cannabis in this 23-year-old's system. And we had alcohol in the 23-year-old's system.

SCHAPER: And Covelli says all three of the contributing factors to this crash are completely preventable.

COVELLI: One of the hardest things we ever have to do is go knock on a door at 2 or 3, 4 o'clock in the morning and tell somebody that their loved one has died as a result of a tragic crash, especially when it's a crash that could have been prevented by not drinking, prevented by not using the cell phone, prevented by not consuming alcohol.

SCHAPER: Yet, traffic fatalities from preventable causes are on the rise all across the country. Mark Rosekind of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says in the first six months of this year, traffic fatalities, including those involving pedestrians and bicyclists, are up 10.4 percent. That's after a 7 percent increase in roadway deaths last year. And Rosekind notes that this is happening at a time when airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control and other new technologies are making our vehicles much safer.

MARK ROSEKIND: Ninety-four percent of crashes can be tied back to a human choice or error - 94 percent. Those are the decisions like drinking and driving, speeding or distraction behind the wheel.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: We are in the midst of a public health crisis, and it isn't Zika.

SCHAPER: Debbie Hersman of the National Safety Council says more than 100 people die on our highways every day. That's the equivalent of two regional jets, 14 planes each week, crashing and killing everyone on board.

HERSMAN: If we had 14 plane crashes a week, our hair would be on fire, and no one would set foot on an airplane. Why do we accept the fatalities that occur on our roadways?

SCHAPER: So the nonprofit National Safety Council and the federal government are working with car and truck manufacturers on new vehicle safety features, like automatic emergency braking, and with engineers on safer road designs. But Mark Rosekind says the biggest challenge is changing human behavior. New technologies will be able to override some mistakes people make but not all.

ROSEKIND: The technology enthusiasm is just because that's a new tool. It's not an answer, either. It's just a new tool for us to use. And as much as people talk about fully autonomous drivers, we've got to do stuff now.

SCHAPER: Because safer, self-driving cars and trucks are still likely a ways off.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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