The Fuse

Traffic Deaths Climb as Driving Becomes Too Tedious for Modern Motorists

by Leslie Hayward | March 02, 2016

The combination of an uptick in vehicle miles travelled (VMT) and increased in-vehicle connectivity is causing a surge in motor vehicle accidents: The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that driving deaths in 2015 increased by 8 percent over 2014, the largest such increase in over 50 years.

According to the NSC, VMT increased by 3.5 percent for the year, showing that the surge in driving deaths has come from factors aside from increased driving—the rate of vehicle accident deaths per million vehicle miles travelled increased by 5 percent from 2014 to 2015.

In the United States in 2015, a total of 38,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents, while an additional 4.4 million suffered injuries requiring hospitalization. The estimated economic cost of all this damage (deaths, injuries, and property damage) was also severe, estimated at $412.1 billion.

Improper deployment of partially-autonomous vehicles to motorists who are already less focused on the road could have disastrous consequences.

As distracted driving accounts for an increasing number of accidents, the arrival of fully-autonomous vehicles can’t come soon enough. But there’s a catch: Improper deployment of partially-autonomous vehicles to motorists who are already less focused on the road could have disastrous consequences.

Distracted driving to blame?

Some of the increase in the death toll has come from the surge in driving as a result of a rebound in economic growth, accompanied by astonishingly low retail fuel prices. However, since the rate of deaths per miles driven has also increased by 5 percent, safety experts are pointing to changes in driver behavior as the culprit. Specifically, distracted driving has increased as Americans are increasingly glued to their mobile devices, and the infotainment arms race has automakers competing to offer exciting and flashy features.

The National Security Council says that 26 percent of vehicle crashes are caused by cell phone use, and that at any given time, 9 percent of drivers are using their cell phones. Features that enable “hands-free” use of mobile devices are not a solution: Voice to text can in fact be more distracting to the driver than typing, according to new research by the Council. Furthermore, it’s a myth that talking on the phone is not more distracting than speaking to another passenger in the car, since passengers offer another set of eyes, are generally aware of driving conditions, and will often stop talking when dangerous situations arise. Of the 26 percent of vehicle crashes that are caused by cell phone use, over 20 percent are caused by voice conversations, not texting.

Unsafe mental distractions can persist for as long as 27 seconds after dialing, changing music or sending a text using voice commands.

“The issue of distracted driving continues to grow,” a spokesperson for the American Automobile Association (AAA) tells The Fuse, citing research by the group’s Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Unsafe mental distractions can persist for as long as 27 seconds after dialing, changing music or sending a text using voice commands.  The research also found that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, potentially resulting in drivers not seeing items right in front of them including stop signs and pedestrians.”

Much has already been written about the decline in the modern attention span thanks to the constant barrage of media and constant connectivity. If such a decline exists, it has coincided with the increasing ease and simplicity of driving in a modern vehicle, which is no longer a very engaging endeavor.

“Humans are optimizers. We do the things that are maximally interesting and exciting, and driving has stopped being one of those activities,” writes Jonah Houston. Houston explains that driving a Model T was all-consuming: “Once you got the car running (a 10-step process in itself) there were an equal number of tasks to keep it running. Drivers had to adjust the spark timing, fuel mixture, as well as yank and tug on all variety of levers and pedals to shift gears. Steering required Herculean strength. Drivers had to watch carefully for road hazards or the tires would burst. If you weren’t paying attention to a Model T, it would stop.”

In the century since the Model T was introduced, the increasing sophistication of the car has transformed the driving experience from demanding to mundane, and it struggles to compete with our cell phones for our attention. The consequences come in the form of lives lost on the road.

Autonomous vehicles offer a solution, if applied correctly

Of course, the increasing sophistication of vehicles that causes driver disengagement often comes in the form of safety features. More and more, drivers are expecting their cars to manage obstacles on their behalf.

The National Institute on Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA) defines 5 levels of vehicle automation. Level 0 is a vehicle that is fully manual. Level 1 has low levels of specific automation, such as braking assistance. Level 2 has combined specific functions, such as cruise control with lane centering. So far, vehicles at Levels 1 and 2 are becoming commercially available, and still require a high level of driver attention.

In general, these functions have improved safety, according to the research so far. AAA estimates that Level 1 features help prevent 13,000 crashes per year. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has found that current crash avoidance features could prevent or mitigate about one-third of fatal crashes, and as many as 1.9 million crashes could be averted each year. The technologies studied include lane departure warning/prevention, forward collision warning/mitigation, side view assist (also known as blind spot detection), and adaptive headlights. However, IIHS emphasizes that this is a “best-case scenario” estimate. Technological failures are not taken into account, and corrective actions on the part of the driver are still needed to maximize the benefits of these features.

In the case of Level 4 fully autonomous vehicles, which are expected to eliminate the vast majority of vehicle crashes, distracted driving poses no challenges—disengaged passengers are free to focus their attention on whatever suits their fancy as a fully competent machine handles the route and the road.

The real challenge comes in somewhere around Level 3, when a vehicle can handle most of the driving, but a driver must remain on hand to step in at any time. According to NHTSA, “Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example of limited self-driving automation.”

But research has shown that asking drivers to be prepared to intervene only in small percentage of the time might do more harm than good. The issues that already exist with distracted driving would likely be magnified dramatically in a Level 3 vehicle, even if the instances when a driver must take control are few and far between.

“The uptick in motor vehicle deaths stemming from driver distraction underscores the reality that humans are just not designed to multitask while in a complex driving environment.”

“The uptick in motor vehicle deaths stemming from driver distraction underscores the reality that humans are just not designed to multitask while in a complex driving environment,” says Amitai Bin-Nun, who has worked on vehicle technology at the Department of Energy, KPMG, Harvard University, and now leads the autonomous vehicles initiative at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE). “This has important lessons for the developmental trajectory of autonomous vehicles—it may be very difficult for the average person to reliably take over the car with little notice. While some believe that it will be possible to solve this issue through design and technology choices, this is why some players in the autonomous vehicle space are aiming to deploy fully autonomous Level 4 vehicles without ever releasing partially autonomous Level 3 vehicles.”

For those companies, such an approach would probably delay full commercial deployment until the technology is advanced enough to entirely eliminate the need for driver intervention. However, as deployment proceeds, this year’s traffic fatality numbers tell a story that should not be ignored when introducing an important technology that, in the longer run, has potential to save millions of lives.