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Automotive Deaths and Big Data

Automotive Deaths and Big Data
by Roger C. Lanctot on 02-07-2016 at 8:00 pm

 Nothing focuses peoples’ attention quite as effectively as death and there’s been a lot of it on U.S. highways lately. Preliminary figures released this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveal that for the first nine months of 2015 traffic fatalities increased 9.3%.

Even more alarming is the fact that for the last three quarters for which there are estimates, Q1-Q3 of 2015, there is a steady increase relative to the year-ago quarters – suggesting a rising trend in highway fatalities. This is not good news especially when you consider that NHTSA has a history of lowballing its estimates of highway fatalities.

The Data:

  • Q1 2015: 7,375 (+7.8%) Est.
  • Q2 2015: 8,850 (+8.3%) Est.
  • Q3 2015: 9,775 (+11.3%) Est.
  • Total Jan.-Sept. 2015: 26,000 (+9.3%)
  • U.S. Vehicle Miles Traveled first 11 months 2015: +3.5%

SOURCE: Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities for the First Nine Months (Jan-Sep) 2015 –

Each death is a tragedy for family and friends of the deceased but also marks an unfolding national failure to come to grips with the ongoing death toll on America’s highways. The increases in 2015 come after years of steady declines and the magnitude of the increases are alarming. It’s an especially demoralizing moment for the U.S. Department of Transportation which has been organizing Safety Summits around the country and pushing to:

  • reduce driver distraction, drowsy driving and drugged driving
  • mitigate cybersecurity concerns
  • chase down car maker lack of cooperation on accident reporting and recall implementation
  • promote the adoption of new technologies to prevent vehicle collisions

The off-the-cuff assessment of NHTSA’s Administrator, Mark Rosekind, is that the likely culprit in the increased fatalities is something as simple as drunk driving or lack of seatbelt use. He told Reuters’ Dave Shepardson: “We’re seeing red flags across the U.S. and we’re not waiting for the situation to develop further. It’s time to drive behavior changes in traffic safety and that means taking on new initiatives and addressing persistent issues like drunk driving and failure to wear seat belts.”

Rosekind’s comments are important for a number of reasons:


  • Drunk driving accounts for approximately one-third of highway fatalities. Clearly, this is a good place to start looking for immediate ways to mitigate a spike in highway fatalities.
  • “Red flags.” – Rosekind talks about red flags, suggesting that indicators exist or sensors are in place to alert authorities to trouble areas on the nation’s highways. I’d very much like to believe that, but I’m skeptical. It seems obvious to me that NHTSA has no real-time means of assessing the state of highway safety in the U.S. from day to day or week to week.

    The official NHTSA position is that it is too soon to tell what the source of the increase in fatalities might be. But significant increases in highway fatalities is a call for action and NHTSA can look to quarterly and annual figures for guidance to an effective response.

    NHTSA’s data identifies some clear low-tech trouble spots including (from NHTSA’s press statement):

    • Drunk driving crashes continue to represent roughly one-third of fatalities, resulting in 9.967 deaths in 2014.
    • Nearly half (49%) of passenger vehicle occupants killed were not wearing seat belts.
    • The number of motorcyclists killed was far higher in states without strong helmet laws, resulting in 1,565 lives lost in 2014.
    • Cyclist deaths declined by 2.3 percent, but pedestrian deaths rose by 3.1 percent from the previous year. In 2014, there were 726 cyclists and 4,884 pedestrians killed in motor vehicle crashes.
    • Distracted driving accounted for 10 percent of all crash fatalities, killing 3,179 people in 2014.
    • Drowsy driving accounted for 2.6 percent of all crash fatalities; at least 846 people died in these crashes in 2014.

    All of the data (above) suggests a government organization well equipped to confront the crisis. The reality is that NHTSA has both ultimate power and no power at all.

    Comments from USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx and Rosekind reflect this conundrum. Either or both noted the agency’s ambition to achieve a state of zero fatalities and zero injuries on U.S. highways. One was even quoted noting the hope that autonomous vehicles will one day play a role in collision mitigation.

    NHTSA is working hard to promote autonomous vehicle development, but it is still leading from behind – with Google and multiple car makers in the forefront of development activity. NHTSA’s ultimate authority lies in its mandates (such as the backup camera mandate in the U.S.) but this power is mitigated by the years involved in the rule-making process including public comments and testing.

    Lately, NHTSA has sought to expand its powers of persuasion and polite coercion – especially around the adoption of collision avoidance technologies. Maybe this is where NHTSA can turn up the heat.

    Safety advocates are calling for a more formal declaration of a zero fatalities goal from the USDOT or even the Obama administration. A national drive for zero fatalities will provide an organizing principle and regulatory framework for identifying and eliminating the root causes of highway fatalities.

    The objective ought to be to put a premium on data collection, aggregation and analysis to better understand where vehicles, drivers or infrastructure are at fault and attack those flaws. NHTSA’s current policies and procedures enable too much bargaining, delay and backsliding and car companies have not been cooperative.

    The prevailing attitude in the automotive industry is that the less data is gathered the better off everyone will be including the customer. This attitude flies in the face of the data collection revolution that is sweeping most other industries from medicine to aerospace.

    Most manufacturers of products or deliverers of services in this IoT-obsessed world, want more data not less. It may be that car makers and car dealers are afraid that data can be used against them. Nobody wants to be the next executive sitting on the hot seat testifying before the U.S. Congress.

    Rather than seeing data collection as a responsibility and an obligation, car companies have sought to mitigate their collection of data to protect customer privacy (in the words of multiple German car makers) or to avoid the cost of wireless data collection from connected vehicles. Investigations at Takata, Volkswagen, GM and Toyota have revealed the limitations of existing government-driven data extraction efforts directed at car companies, even in the context of potentially criminal investigations.

    The autonomous car movement is changing this situation. The emergence of autonomous car development has opened the door to governments collecting data from car companies – as in the case of Google reporting collision events to California regulators.

    It may be time for NHTSA to step up its data reporting requirements, thereby giving car makers an excuse for gathering more data while setting the stage for improved processes for mitigating the 100-fatalities-a-day carnage on U.S. roads. Sharing a little data seems like a small price to pay to solve a big problem.

    Increased and improved data sharing, aggregation and analysis is sweeping the car industry. It’s time for NHTSA to get in on the action – in the interest of saving lives.

    If you share these concerns you may want to sign this petition calling for a Zero Fatality goal for the U.S.:

    More information here:

    More articles from Roger…

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