After a decade of steady decline, the number of Americans killed on U.S. highways jumped by about 8 percent in 2015, and the toll is getting higher this year. There are any number of explanations, including the use of cell phones and texting behind the wheel. Every day, real estate professionals take not only their own lives in their hands but also those of clients they drive around from showing to showing. Fortunately, new vehicle safety technology could make agents’ jobs much less perilous on the road.
Federal safety regulators — and more than a few top auto industry executives — are beginning to paint a very different picture of roadway safety for the future: Imagine a time when there are zero fatalities on U.S. roads, says Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “We can prevent them. Our drive toward zero deaths is more than just a worthy goal. It is the only acceptable goal.”
Is it achievable? Can all highway deaths be eliminated? Even if the number doesn’t reach zero, there is a growing consensus that the vast majority of highway crashes, injuries, and fatalities could be eliminated within the next few decades. “Today, the automobile finds itself at a significant turning point,” Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, wrote in an op-ed for the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “With the help of policymakers providing clear regulatory oversight, [new] technologies could lead to ‘zero fatality’ roads within our lifetimes.”
In fact, while NHTSA and the U.S. Department of Transportation believe it will take 30 years to achieve its target, Swedish automaker Volvo says it is aiming for zero deaths in any of its new products built after 2020. Last year, Volvo opened a new research and test center specifically focused on eliminating crash fatalities.
Annual highway deaths peaked in 1972 at 54,589, but safety systems such as airbags and three-point belts helped bring that figure down to 32,000 early this decade, a decline of around 40 percent. Last year, highway deaths climbed back to 35,092. Those numbers actually understate the transformation, as Americans today drive far more miles than they did four decades ago. In 1964, there were 5.39 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That dipped to just 1.1 in 2013, the lowest figure ever recorded.
New technologies have been responsible for some of the biggest improvements in recent years. Electronic stability control, for example, has cut the number of deaths in single-car crashes by half, noted Jessica Cicchino, director of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Reaching for a goal of zero, “a lot of it is going to come from smart cars,” she added, especially with the advent of fully autonomous and driverless vehicles.
But not all the solutions will be high-tech. Roundabouts have been shown to reduce crashes at intersections, for example, and the IIHS is pressing states to roll back speed limits. The insurance trade organization claims 33,000 people have died since federal maximums were eliminated 20 years ago.
There remain plenty of skeptics, including some within the safety community, like Amnon Shashua, founder of and chief technology officer at Mobileye, an Israeli-based company whose artificial vision technology is used in a number of smart car systems now on the road, as well as autonomous vehicle prototypes.
“Zero accidents will never happen,” he cautioned in an interview earlier this year. There will be trees that fall on passing cars in a storm, sinkholes that open up in a roadway, and other unpredictable events. That said, even if improved roads and vehicles can reduce fatalities only by “three orders of magnitude,” the impact would be substantial — perhaps 350, rather than 35,000, deaths a year.
The reality is that we may always suffer some highway fatalities, acknowledges IIHS research chief Cicchino, but “it’s not acceptable to have anyone die on our roads, so we shouldn’t accept a number any higher than zero.” And, for the first time since Henry Bliss became the first American known to have died in a car crash on Sept. 14, 1899, the idea of truly death-free highways seems a real possibility.