Culture change and highway safety

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This week out in San Diego, a wide assortment of law enforcement and roadway safety experts gathered for the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) to cover a wide array of issues including distracted driving, motorcycle safety, traffic enforcement, and many more.

Yet perhaps one single subtext connects those many issues – the somewhat surprising “yo-yoing” of U.S. traffic fatality data, which from where I sit at least tends to cloud one’s ability to develop a clear picture of highway safety trends in our nation.

For example, consider these factoids: Last year, according to data compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and released back in May, an estimated 34,080 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2012; an increase of about 5.3% compared to the 32,367 fatalities in 2011.

That’s the first year with a year-to-year increase in fatalities since 2005 as traffic fatalities had been steadily declining over the previous six years since reaching a near-term peak in 2005, NHTSA noted; decreasing by about 26% from 2005 to 2011.

Also, in 2012, fatalities increased in the first (up 12.6%), second (up 5.3%), third (up 3.2%) and fourth (up 1.7 %) quarters, as compared to the respective quarters in 2011, even though preliminary data data reported by the Fed­eral Highway Administration (FHWA) found that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2012 increased by about 9.1 bil­lion miles, or just 0.3% year-over-year.

OK, one would say, that’s bad. But wait: now look at traffic fatality data for the first quarter of this year. According to NHTSA, a statistical projection of traffic fatalities for the first quarter of 2013 shows that an estimated 7,200 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes – a DECREASE of about 4.4% as compared to the 7,530 fatalities during the same quarter of 2012.

Now, preliminary data reported by the FHWA shows that VMT in the first three months of 2013 decreased by about 5.6 billion miles, or about 0.8%, meaning that the fatality rate for the first quarter this year slid to 1.04 fatalities per 100 million VMT; down from 1.08 fatalities per 100 million VMT in the first quarter of 2012.

“The percentage change in fatalities has been steadily decreasing since the significant 12.3% increase projected for the first quarter of 2012,” the agency noted in its most recent statistical update – adding that, according to new estimates, fatali­ties in 2012 are now projected to have increased 4.4% as compared to the 5.3% noted above.

That conforms to some positive preliminary data reported by the National Safety Council earlier in August, which discerned that deaths from motor vehicle crashes during the first six months of this year are down 5% compared to the same six month period in 2012.

OK, then – that’s good stuff. But wait again, for a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that older workers aged 65 and over are at far higher risk of death in highway crahes than almost any other age group.

How to make sense of all of this?

Well, I talked by phone with John Ulczycki, NSC’s VP of strategic initiatives, who was out in San Diego at the aforementioned GHSA annual meeting, and one of the things he stressed to me is that highway crashes remain a leading cause of death (as well as injury) for most Americans – a factoid backed up by the CDC’s research.

“That’s why the data from this latest [CDC] report on older workers is not really surprising when placed into this context,” he told me. “What we’re really talking about in this [older worker] report though is passenger vehicle crashes usually involving senior-level personnel; managers, sales directors, and executives. You are usually not going to find too many 25 year olds in such positions.”

Ulczycki also thinks there are a couple of reasons why the risk of older workers dying in motor vehicle crashes is higher. One obviously is due to their age, as eye sight and reaction times tend to fade as humans get older. Yet another reason may stem from what he calls “ingrained habits” especially when it comes to using the phone while driving.

“We’re talking about workers who came of age well before all the risks of distracted driving were well known,” Ulczycki said.

Indeed, federal safety data indicates that at any given time during daylight hours, more than 800,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone. On top of that, NSC’s Ulczycki added that only some 6 million U.S. workers are employed by companies that have established what he calls “total cell phone bans” for when they operate motor vehicles – a very small slice of the estimated 150 million workers currently employed in the U.S.

Even state laws banning cell phone usage for motor vehicles are not ubiquitous as of yet – though there are federal laws banning such use by commercial drivers on the books, as truckers know all too well.

“While safety and law enforcement officials are leveraging in-vehicle monitoring, automated enforcement, real-time data analysis and other tools to address unsafe behaviors on the road, the driving public remains steadfast in their unwillingness to put down their phones, despite recognizing the risks,” GHSA noted in a statement as it opened its conference this week.

In the end, that’s why NSC’s Ulczycki believes it’s going to take more than just laws and enforcement efforts to keep traffic fatalities and injuries on a permanent downswing in this country: indeed, he feels a true “culture change” will be needed by the motoring public, especially in regards to the dangers posed by distracted driving.

“It’s hard for people to change, especially when habits become very ingrained,” he told me. “But that’s what we must keep working on.” 

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