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Rising Highway Fatalities

Elaine Chao, one of the first of President Trump’s cabinet nominees was sworn in as US Secretary of Transportation on January 31, 2017.  Said Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota), the Commerce Committee chairman who oversaw Secretary Chao’s confirmation hearings, “It would be hard to come up with a more qualified nominee.”  The agreement was obviously substantial, the vote in her favor an overwhelming 93 to 6.

At her confirmation hearing, Secretary Chao had said, “Our country’s transportation infrastructure is the underpinning of our world-class economy… These gains are jeopardized by infrastructure in need of repair, the specter of rising highway fatalities, growing congestion, and by a failure to keep pace with emerging technologies.”

Essentially an outline of Ms.Chao’s priorities, this early identification of key issues was impressive, and, alas, her mention of “the specter of rising highway fatalities” almost prophetic.  Mid-February the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization that works closely with federal auto-safety regulators released traffic fatality estimates for 2016 indicating a 6% rise over 2015 thereby forecasting 40,200 fatalities for the year.

If proven accurate, 2016 will be the first year since 2007 to surpass 40,000 fatalities in a single year. And, added to the 7% rise in 2015, will tally the largest two-year increase in more than 50 years. Additionally, while Americans are driving more miles for work and pleasure, this trend also involves an increase in the number of deaths as a percentage of miles driven.

This trend is surely frustrating for safety advocates including vehicle manufacturers, and government regulators. Despite considerable advances in vehicle crash avoidance and crashworthiness, despite improvements in licensing and law enforcement programs, despite extensive educational programs aimed at all age and socio-economic groups—despite everything, Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association was quoted in the New York Times newspaper saying, “It’s still the same things killing drivers — belts, booze, and speed.”  Data from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: “About half of all traffic fatalities involve unbelted occupants, and almost a third involve drivers who were impaired by drugs or alcohol.”

Even more evidence of the challenge posed by the ‘driver behavior’ factor in the road safety equation has emerged recently.  A survey of 2,511 drivers conducted in late 2016 by market research firm GfK and recently released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found 88% of drivers in the 19 to 24 age category acknowledged engaging in the month previous “in risky behavior such as texting while driving, running red lights or speeding.”

More confounding is the finding that, “while 40.2% of [the surveyed] drivers reported reading a text or email …78.2% called that “completely unacceptable.”  Another confounding finding: While expressing ‘strong support’ for ignition locks for even first time offenders of driving while impaired, and for reducing blood-alcohol concentration from .08, the current national criminal standard to .05, 2.5% of the surveyed drivers acknowledged driving within an hour of using marijuana and alcohol in the past year.

Clearly, Secretary Chao has a lot of work to do.

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