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New NHTSA Study Shows Traffic Deaths Decreasing

There was good news regarding efforts to reduce the number of fatalities on American roads, in a report recently released by the NHTSA. Even though Americans are driving more miles than ever before, the number of fatalities was lower in 2010 than at any stage in more than half a century. The last time there were fewer deaths on our nation’s highways and byways was in 1949.

Rather than resting on their laurels, however, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the focus will now shift on a crackdown on distracted driving practices, in an effort to drive the figures down even further. Secretary LaHood has made the fight against distracted driving something of a personal crusade since taking office.

Despite the encouraging figures, the NHTSA also identified some worrying trends. Some of the highlights of the report include:

  • A total of 32, 885 people died in road fatalities in 2010.
  • For every 100 million vehicle miles traveled on American roads in 2010, there were 1.10 deaths. That represents a significant decline, according to LaHood, over the 2009 figure of 1.15 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
  • Motor fatalities declined in most categories last year, including:
    • Passenger cars
    • Light trucks
    • Drunk driving
  • Negative trends were recorded in other areas, however, which saw an increase in the number of fatalities involving:
    • Pedestrians
    • Motorcyclists
    • Large trucks

As part of the NHTSA campaign to clamp down on distracted driving accidents, a new measurement category was introduced in 2010. The new category is called “distraction-affected crashes,” which replaces the 2009 category called “distraction-related crashes.”

Using the new category, it is estimated that 3,092 distracted-affected deaths occurred in 2010, though NHTSA expressed an opinion that this figure may be on the low side. A spokesman said that the lack of witnesses to accidents and, more significantly, the reluctance of drivers to admit they were involved in distracted driving behavior often make it difficult to truly determine if distractions caused or contributed to accidents.

Cell phones are the main culprit

The NHTSA says the main distractions likely to cause crashes leading to serious injuries and road fatalities, perhaps not surprisingly, involve the use of cell phones. Key distractions include:

  • Dialing while driving
  • Sending texts
  • Reading texts
  • Miscellaneous outside distractions like programming GPS systems, eating, doing make-up, etc.

In a NHTSA nationwide survey, indications pointed to the fact that the message regarding the dangers of using cell phones while driving still aren’t getting through to all drivers. In 2009, the same survey revealed that 5 percent of drivers were actually observed talking on cell phones while behind the wheel. In 2010, that number hadn’t declined by even a fraction.

Conflicting and confusing attitudes on the part of drivers

As part of the survey, drivers were asked about their own perceptions of the risks associated with cell phone use. They were then asked how they feel when, as passengers, they see the person driving the car using a cell phone. To say the results were conflicting would be an understatement. The responses showed:

  • Drivers admitted they answer incoming calls on most trips.
  • When asked if there were driving situations where they wouldn’t answer their phone or even respond to a text, the same drivers said there were very few such situations.
  • However, the exact same people said they often feel very unsafe when they are passengers in a vehicle and the driver is using their cell phone, and particularly when the driver is involved in sending or reading texts.
  • Finally, the respondents actually said they would support bans on texting and even a complete ban on cell phone use by drivers would receive overwhelming support.

According to NHTSA administrator David Strickland, these findings show the complexity of the problem, while also going some way to explaining how and why drivers continue to make “bad decisions about driving (while) distracted.” Strickland went on to say the NHTSA won’t be found wanting when it comes to tackling distracted driving. “We need to maintain our focus on this issue through education, laws, enforcement and vehicle design, to help keep drivers’ attention on the road,” Strickland said.

To create and analyze data on distracted driving, the NHTSA has planned a two-year study of 2,000 drivers. The study will be conducted and data gathered by installing cameras and other equipment in the participants’ cars. The images and information collected will hopefully help officials to pinpoint the correlation between drivers’ behavior and crashes.

Improvements in car safety features have helped

Without any doubt, the improved safety features designed and built into cars over the past decade has certainly saved lives—tens of thousands of lives. NHTSA results indicate that technology improvements between 2000 and 2008 model years alone have prevented 700,000 accidents.

The NHTSA study, which documented design improvements in cars, estimated that in 2008 alone, 2,000 lives were saved and as many as one million occupant injuries were prevented.

Other statistics in this study showed:

  • The likelihood of emerging from a crash uninjured rose from 79 percent to 82 percent, between model years 2000 and 2008.
  • The likelihood of crashing in every 100,000 miles of driving declined from 30 percent in a 2000 model year car to 25 percent in a 2008 car.
  •  About 9 million vehicles, with 12 million occupants were involved in accidents in the years covered by the study. It is estimated that technologies implemented by 2008 could have prevented 200,000 accidents and prevented or lessened the severity of 300,000 injuries.

While improved auto designs and better safety practices have made significant contributions to greater road safety, Secretary LaHood says the job is not yet done. “We celebrate the historic decline in deaths and injuries on our roads, (but) we remain laser-focused on continuing to improve safety.

Portland personal injury attorneys welcome any measures, whether improvements in equipment or better driving practices, that reduce the number of fatalities and injuries on Oregon roads. Sadly, accidents continue to happen, and drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists continue to suffer horrific, life-changing injuries or worse; many times down to the negligence of other road users.