Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste: NMA E-Newsletter #370

The headlines were predictable: “Huge spike in traffic deaths is largest since 1940s”, “Why Are America’s Traffic Deaths Rising So Fast?”, “Rise in traffic deaths last year raises alarm at NHTSA”, “NHTSA seeks new ways to boost safety.”

They’re responding to news of a projected 9.3 percent jump in highway fatalities through the first nine months of 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA estimates there were 26,000 traffic fatalities during that time, an increase of 2,204 over the same period in 2014.

NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind dutifully played the alarmist: “We’re seeing red flags across the US, and we’re not waiting for the situation to develop further. It’s time to drive behavioral changes in traffic safety, and that means taking on new initiatives and addressing persistent issues like drunk driving and failure to wear seat belts.”

But wait. Before we lower the BAC limit to .02, let’s take a closer look. Yes, the number of fatalities is projected to increase, but that means nothing by itself since people have been driving more over the last couple of years. Looking at the fatality rate, which accounts for the number of miles people drive, we see only a slight uptick to 1.10 per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in 2015 from 1.05 in 2014, which was a historic low. That’s only a 4.8 percent increase.

What did people expect? Trend lines bounce around, and they usually go up after they go down, especially after hitting unprecedented lows. It’s regression toward the mean in practice. Thankfully, public reaction to this kind of news is typically muted, if non-existent, despite the urgent tone set by the media and safety officials.

The highway fatality rate moved up slightly in 2005 and in 2012 but continued downward thereafter. The same will likely happen now. Also note that even with increasing speed limits across the country, the fatality rate has been declining steadily for 20 years, hitting many historic lows in the process. So much for the “Speed Kills” argument.

None of this will stop the safety crowd, however. They will continue to push for more enforcement, more regulation, more mandates, more ticket cameras, more bike lanes: the essence of the Vision Zero agenda.

They’re also pushing for something new, something NHTSA administrator Rosekind calls “proactive safety.”

At this stage, proactive safety seems to refer to greater collaboration between government and automakers to address defect/recall issues as well as automotive cybersecurity concerns. But it may also include greater federal involvement in autonomous vehicle development.

In January, Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox announced $3.9 billion in federal funding for connected and autonomous vehicle development as well as the creation of a nationwide regulatory framework for driverless vehicles. “We are going to do everything we can to advance safe, smart, sustainable transportation innovations,” Foxx told reporters.

The upturn in traffic fatalities provides a convenient justification for all kinds of intervention. As Chicago Mayor, and red-light camera booster, Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

NHTSA’s Rosekind has called for addressing the “human factors” that contribute to 94 percent of auto fatalities. Sounds reasonable until you realize that the likely solution involves taking humans out of the equation completely through automation. We discussed the wisdom of this in a prior e-newsletter.

Just last week NHTSA issued an opinion stating that an autonomous vehicle’s driving software could be considered the vehicle’s legal driver; none of the vehicle occupants would need a driver’s license. This directly contradicts recent California regulations requiring driverless car operators to have a valid driver’s license as well as special training to take control of the vehicle in an emergency. Click here for a fascinating, personal take on this.

Jim Morrison told us to “keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel.” Sage advice for now, but there may come a time when such behavior will seem archaic or even undesirable.

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