Why Car Accidents Are Still So Common (and What We Can Do About It)

Mar 27, 2019 by

Car Accidents Are Still a Major Threat: Here’s Why

Despite major advancements in safety standards and vehicular technology, and a much better understanding of how traffic works, car accidents resulting in injury and death are still frighteningly common. In 2017, there were more than 37,000 motor vehicle deaths in the United States, which is 11.40 fatalities per population of 100,000.

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So why is it that car accidents are still so common, and what can we do to make a real improvement?

The Pedestrian Problem

The number of fatal accidents from one car hitting another are going down, but the number of pedestrian deaths is increasing. There are a few reasons why this might be the case, but the bottom line is that improvements to traffic knowledge and vehicular technology can’t make up for the vulnerability of ordinary pedestrians. A person walking or biking is still generally unprotected, and it doesn’t take much of an error for a driver to jeopardize their lives. Pedestrians can seek legal compensation for injuries they sustain in an accident, and most auto insurance policies protect against damage to pedestrians, but that doesn’t reduce the fatality rate.

Distracted Driving

Distracted driving is also becoming a bigger problem. Modern drivers, despite the improvements in their vehicle’s built-in safety measures, are presented with more opportunities for taking their eyes off the road. Smartphone navigation, messaging, and notifications are all enough to pull your attention away from your surroundings—and taking your eyes off the road for just 2 seconds is enough to double your risk of an accident.

Many states and cities have passed laws forbidding drivers to text while driving, or even use a mobile device while driving, and these have had a measurable impact on the rate of accidents. However, it’s not enough to fully account for the increased risks presented by distracted driving.

Blind Spots

Some technologies have improved visibility of each vehicle’s natural blind spots, from simple measures like better-placed angular mirrors to more complex ones like rear-facing cameras. Still, blind spots are a natural feature of most vehicles, and it’s hard to fully compensate for their limitations. All it takes is one unexpectedly approaching vehicle to introduce a major safety hazard for the driver and everyone around them.

Overconfidence

Another major problem is driver overconfidence, and introducing new safety technologies may be pushing overconfidence even higher. Thanks to the illusory superiority bias, nearly everyone believes themselves to be an “above-average” driver, though statistically, this is impossible. Believing you’re a better driver than you actually are allows you to take more risks while driving, such as going out in inclement weather, following other vehicles closer than you should, pushing the speed limit, and rolling through stop signs and red lights. These risky behaviors increase the possibility you’ll be in an accident, but the drivers committing them believe they’re an exception to this statistical rule. If a driver knows their car is equipped with better equipment for visibility or handling, they may be inclined to overestimate their abilities even more.

Misguided Improvements

Not all of the purported improvements to traffic safety have the positive effects that were intended. For example, for the past several decades, it was thought that offering wider lanes on roads could reduce the rate of accidents, since vehicles would have more room to maneuver, and there would be fewer opportunities for collision. In reality, narrower roads are demonstrably safer; even though vehicles have less room, the perception of a narrower space forces drivers to be more attentive, and motivates them to maintain a lower speed than they would with more horizontal space.

Limited Automation

We may also be seeing a problem emerging with partial driving autonomy. If a car can drive by itself under certain conditions, or with human supervision, it’s easy for human drivers to become so relaxed or trusting of the technology that they can’t take immediate action when they need to. It’s one of the reasons many technologists insist upon making the leap to full autonomy without partially autonomous options.

Are There Any Fixes?

There are patchwork fixes we can apply to all these problems, but they won’t eliminate the problem of car accidents entirely. For example, we can pass more laws designed to reduce the prevalence of distracted driving, but drivers can still break those laws and attempt to text while driving. We can create fully autonomous vehicles, but even those may be found at fault for some accidents.

Car accidents are something we’ll have to deal with for as long as we’re depending on conventional vehicular travel, and as we grow to improve our technologies and our approaches, there are bound to be growing pains. However, we should be able to gradually reduce the incidence of injuries and fatalities by paying more attention to the common root causes of vehicular collisions.

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