Advances in safety technologies have made vehicles safer than ever before, yet recent data released by top federal safety regulators show a nearly 8 percent increase in motor vehicle traffic deaths in 2015.
An estimated 35,200 people died on U.S. roadways last year, according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency attributes part of the increase to more Americans driving more miles as the economy has improved and gas prices have decreased; however, preliminary data links 94 percent of crashes to human choice or error.
“Every American should be able to drive, ride or walk to their destination safely, every time,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We are analyzing the data to determine what factors contributed to the increase in fatalities and at the same time, we are aggressively testing new safety technologies, new ways to improve driver behavior, and new ways to analyze the data we have, as we work with the entire road safety community to take this challenge head-on.”
Increase in Large Truck-Related Deaths
According to the data, fatalities in crashes involving large trucks also increased by 4 percent from 2014, but factors contributing to those deaths have not been identified. Statistics from past studies have shown driver error tends to be the primary cause of the large majority of trucking accidents.
In a study conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), almost one-third of large trucks involved in crashes had crossed over a lane or departed from the roadway. In addition, the driver’s loss of control, either because of traveling too fast or for another reason, accounted for nearly 30 percent of the trucking accidents, while turning at or crossing an intersection accounted for 10 percent of the accidents.
The most common driver errors are typically related to the drivers’ physical impairment, lack of recognition, decision making or performance. For example, in the FMCSA study, the four most common driver errors were driving too fast for conditions (26 percent); being unfamiliar with the roadway (24 percent); driver fatigue (13 percent); and inattention (10 percent).
Is Driver Assistance Technology the Answer?
The reasons behind trucking accidents and why they occur beg the question: Can driver assistance technology help avoid or mitigate these types of accidents? The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) thinks so. According to the IIHS, one out of five fatal crashes involving large trucks could be prevented or mitigated with a combination of driver assistance technologies, including blind spot detection, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and electronic stability control.
Driver assistance technologies, such as those that apply the brakes when approaching a slower-moving vehicle or sound an alert when drivers stray into another lane, are increasingly available on commercial vehicles as a way to potentially mitigate accidents caused by driver fatigue and other factors.
The trucking industry, as a whole, has yet to fully adopt these technologies, and regulations – as they stand currently – do not require them, although some are expected to be required in heavy trucks by 2020.
Many driver assistance technologies still rely on drivers to take action. These technologies have been met with resistance by some drivers who find them annoying, intrusive or unhelpful. Other drivers have raised concerns that truck monitoring technology, while intended for safety, may also be used to monitor their every move.
The effectiveness of driver assistance technologies depends on whether drivers accept them, understand the information provided and respond appropriately. If vehicles are equipped with multiple systems, drivers can have trouble interpreting the different warnings. Negative reactions to or experiences with these types of technologies can cause drivers to disable them.
In addition to driver challenges, the technology itself can have limitations due to environmental factors such as lighting and inclement weather, proving that – for now – driver assistance technologies, regardless of how sophisticated, cannot replace the driver. Perhaps they can reduce the number of accidents on U.S. roadways and save lives.
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