Automakers Promised Technology Would Make Roads Safer. It Hasn’t.

U.S. road deaths have surged for the second straight year even though fatalities in other countries continue falling. What happened to all that car technology that was going to save lives?
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Earlier this week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released the latest road fatality statistics. It is “grim reading,” the latter being a phrase that regularly appears in news articles about American road death statistics for the past half-century. 42,915 people died while trying to get where they needed to go on U.S. roads last year. That’s 117 people on average each day, or about the number of people you can stuff into a large regional jet. One plane going down every day for an entire year. 

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And there is no identifiable, isolated trend that can account for this. More people of all ages and genders in all parts of the country are dying on all types of roads at all times of day and night in all driving conditions in all types of vehicles.

When road fatalities in the U.S. rose sharply in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, experts floated various theories for why this might be. The disappearance of traffic allowing for faster speeds was the first and most popular theory, followed by a strange assertion of general anti-sociability and people, broadly, acting like assholes because of lasting impacts of pandemic life, of which aggressive driving was merely one symptom. What these explanations never accounted for was, at least as far as road fatalities are concerned, the trend was almost completely isolated to the U.S.. While virtually every other OECD country—mostly higher-income, “developed” countries in economic parlance—was able to sustain or even accelerate decades-long trends in making roads safer during the pandemic, the U.S. continued its multi-year backpedaling in making its roads more dangerous for everyone. People in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Australia are roughly four times less likely to die in a road crash than U.S. residents, according to OECD estimates. People in the UK and Japan are five times less likely to die on their roads. Canadians are about 2.5 times less likely to die on their roads. These trends predate COVID.

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While safety advocates reacted to the news with alarm and rightly called it a preventable public health crisis, some took the opportunity to tout technology’s potential to reverse the trend. Ariel Wolf, a former Trump administration Department of Transportation lawyer who now represents the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, was widely quoted in press accounts this week repeating the myth that “risky driving behaviors” are the root of this public health crisis and that the 42,915 deaths “provide a reminder of why the autonomous vehicle industry is dedicated to developing and deploying lifesaving technology. AVs—which do not speed, become impaired or get distracted—can help radically improve safety on American roadways.”

It is ludicrous to point to an unproven technology as the cure for a public health crisis that other countries have made huge strides in addressing, akin to waving away the firefighters who pull up to your burning house with water hoses because someone is supposedly on their way with an innovative method of putting out fires. It is also very much in accord with how U.S. officials and automakers have historically reacted to such “grim reading.” Autonomous vehicles and semi-autonomous safety technology have been touted as the next great safety innovation for years. As the Reuters automotive newsletter pointed out, deaths have been rising even as cars are equipped with more safety technology than ever such as automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection, and lane-keeping assistance. Even if automakers are careful not to promise safety improvements for legal reasons they clearly imply that in the marketing, with commercials showing cars automatically braking to avoid hitting someone and then a happy family going on to live their lives. The problem with technologies such as automatic braking is they work best at low speeds when people are unlikely to be seriously injured by a crash anyways

Automakers, safety officials, and departments of transportation on the local and state level have been touting these technologies as solutions to the road death crisis. Ten years ago, few vehicles on the road had them. Now, many more do, although we don’t know for sure how many because automakers won’t share that data and the government doesn’t track it. But many of these safety features like automatic braking are increasingly available even on lower-end car models. If they actually made a statistically significant difference in preventing people from dying, roads should be safer by now. They aren’t.

But none of this is likely to stop us from going through the cycle all over again, with some new technology promising to make roads safer and government officials going all in on it. The allure of the magic technology that will solve everything is too strong. It is strong for government officials who don’t have to do anything but continue to promise a better future and wait for the technology to take effect. It is even stronger for automakers and their suppliers who can sell ever-larger and more dangerous vehicles laden with expensive electronics for more profit without being subject to effective but potentially undesirable safety regulations. And it is strongest for the American public, the vast majority of whom rely on these dangerous machines to live their daily lives, because we can continue to blame crashes on individual error, on the nut behind the wheel, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Road deaths are the product of systemic issues in road design, traffic laws, and a lack of safe alternatives. It is much easier to live our lives imagining the 42,915 people did something wrong to deserve their fate. It’s much less comforting to recognize that it was no accident.

The proven ways to reduce road deaths—building and maintaining robust public transit systems that work well, lowering speed limits and redesigning roads to make faster speeds seem scarier so people naturally slow down, expanding bike infrastructure, and countless other helpful measures—are hard work that piss a lot of people off at first. None of us want to think we or someone we love will be one of the 42,915 or so people who will die this year doing the same thing. But it will happen, because it does every year, and it will keep happening, because technology will not save us, no matter how much we hope it will.