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Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

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Technology could stop drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.
UNACCEPTABLE LOSS

Thousands of Americans are dying completely preventable deaths

Americans rail about gun deaths and panic over plane crashes. We’ve turned our society upside-down over terrorism, which has led to a total of 3,264 US deaths since 1995. But as terrible as these dangers are, they don’t come close to the threat we face each time we get behind the wheel.

More than 38,000 Americans died in car crashes in 2015, according to the National Safety Council. That’s an annual death toll equivalent to thirteen 9/11 attacks. An even great number of people, 2.5 million, sustained serious injuries last year alone. We accept this daily violence on our highways as inevitable—a risk we’re willing to take in exchange for mobility. Yet affordable technology exists right now that could greatly reduce the number of deaths on the road.

We call car crashes “accidents,” as if there is no one to blame. But there are almost no accidents on our roads—just reckless, negligent, deliberate choices that lead to wrenching loss and sorrow. The carnage is entirely predictable, because our cars and the ways we use them are designed to produce tens of thousands of deaths and millions of injuries a year.

Drunk driving, speeding and distractions cause roughly nine out of 10 fatal wrecks. Here are the simple changes we could make to stop these unnecessary deaths.

The end of drunk driving

Devices use breath analysis to prevent drunk drivers from starting cars have been around for years—and now this once-clunky technology is advancing rapidly. Simple pocket-sized versions, as seen on the TV show Shark Tank, are now on the market can be clipped directly to smartphones. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also testing prototypes of a promising new system that uses touch sensors embedded in steering wheels to measure alcohol in the blood by “sniffing” the skin. Such devices, if made ubiquitous, would add only a few hundred dollars to the price of a car—less than fancy wheel rims or leather seat covers. And they stop drunk drivers cold by killing the ignition switch.

Some states already place such devices in cars after people are convicted of drunk driving. The problem with this approach is that the average drunk driver gets behind the wheel while intoxicated 80 times before ever getting caught.

If the US were to pass a law requiring anti-drunk driver technology to be implemented in all new cars right now, it would prevent an estimated 59,000 deaths and 1.25 million crash injuries over the next 15 years. It would also save $342 billion in crash injury costs—much, much more than the cost of adding the devices.

Slowing down

After drunk driving, speeding is the next greatest cause of deaths and destruction on the road. Many drivers refuse to follow speed limits. Last year, their impatience came at the cost of about 1,000 lives a month, according to my analysis of numbers from the National Safety Council.

Once again, technology offers a simple fix: speed governors. Such devices have existed since the early days of automobiles as simple mechanical devices that limited car speeds by restricting the fuel throttle. Now we have ubiquitous digital technologies in smart phones and vehicles that can sense a car’s speed, direction and location, including the posted speed limits of the street or highway on which a person is driving. Most cars also have cruise control that electronically regulates the speed of a vehicle. To keep cars from exceeding the posted speed limit, we need simply marry these two existing and robust technologies.

A simple app could make it impossible for cars to speed. And there’s an added bonus. Speeders create traffic snafus by racing ahead of other cars, cutting lanes, tail-gating, and then jamming on their brakes. So getting them to slow down would make traffic flow better and quicker for everyone.

Eyes on the road

Lots of drivers operate under the false impression that they can “multi-task” while driving. This is a myth. Our brains are wired to do just one thing at a time well. Multi-tasking is just another word for distraction—which accounts for 26% of car wrecks in the US, according to the National Safety Council.

Getting our hands off our phones while driving would be a huge step in the right direction. The same technology that could end speeding could also be used to prevent drivers from using smartphones when they’re in the car—a primary cause of distraction, the number-three cause of car wrecks. The traffic and navigation app Waze, for example, already issues warnings when drivers try to use a smartphone’s touch screen while the car is in motion.

I propose taking this technology just a bit further: instead of such warnings, smartphones in moving cars should go into dark-screen mode. Drivers who really do need to make calls or look up new directions would be limited to using voice controls, while keeping their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.

The upshot

What all this should demonstrate is that we don’t have to wait around for future fleets of self-driving cars to start saving lives. The fact that we’ve delayed taking action so long should be a national scandal.

Advocates of the status quo will protest that the traffic death toll is lower today than it’s been in past decades and that cars get safer all the time. These points are all factually accurate. But they mask just how outrageous the status quo remains. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for all Americans under age 40. If we tolerate these highly preventable deaths as the cost of doing business, we accept what—in any sane world—should be unacceptable to all.