The 94% number

Jan. 26, 2016
NHTSA data indicates 94% of fatla vehicle crashes tied to human error

So last week, before Winter Storm Jonas paid the East Coast a visit, I dropped down to the Washington Auto Show (you can view some photo galleries from that event here, here, and here) in part to listen to Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), discuss a variety of vehicle safety trends and how his agency hopes to shape them in the future.

Two things stuck in my mind following Rosekind’s speech and his give-and-take with reporters.

First, Rosekind said that, according to NHTSA’s data, in 94% of fatal crashes, a “human mistake” is the “critical factor” triggering such events.

And, second, he firmly believes autonomous vehicles (AVs) offer the potential to be the “biggest revolution” ever in vehicle technology and will play a pivotal role in avoiding a good many fatal crashes altogether.

Yet it’s a revolution that remains a long way off. “It will take 20 to 30 years for self-driving cars to fully penetrate the [vehicle] market,” Rosekind explained, noting that the average age of light vehicles right now is around 11.5 years.

[The U.S. Department of Transportation, however, is planning to invest $4 billion over the next 10 years to help spur more AV research and development.]

“We can’t just make such technology appear in cars by tomorrow,” he said. “[But] it is not science fiction to suggest that technology could sometime, in the not-too-distant future, help us avoid the vast majority of fatal crashes.”

Yet Rosekind also believes many interim safety steps need to occur in order to reduce fatal vehicle crashes ahead of that AV “revolution,” particularly in the realm of driver education.

“We need to think more broadly about education,” he explained. For example, Rosekind pointed out that while 87% of U.S. drivers say they wear their seat belts, some 50% of the 32,675 people killed in fatal vehicle crashes in 2014 were not wearing them.

“That’s human choice,” he stressed. “So not only do we need to figure out how to get new safety technologies on the road faster, we also need to take a new look at driver education. We need to make driver education more comprehensive and more ongoing.”

It will be interesting to see how those perspectives influence vehicle safety policies down the road.

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