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Time for U.S. Fatality Reduction Targets

Time for U.S. Fatality Reduction Targets
by Roger C. Lanctot on 09-01-2016 at 12:00 pm

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a blog implicating the insurance industry in the high level of highway fatalities in the U.S. As part of that blog (“The Insurance Industry Has Blood on Its Hands”) I suggested that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ought to look into developing a fatality-reduction quota system for car makers as part of a Vision Zero implementation.

This strategy occurred to me in the context of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirement first enacted by Congress in 1975 in reaction to the then ominous Arab oil embargo. Thanks to that requirement, the overall average fuel efficiency of the automotive fleet on U.S. roads has almost doubled since that time.

U.S. Overall Average Fuel Efficiency

SOURCE: Wikipedia

For years, fuel efficiency has improved alongside the reduction in highway fatalities. But this tidy correlation came to an end in 2015, as highway fatalities climbed 7.2%, reversing a long-term downward trend.

Indications are that this upward trajectory is continuing into 2016, based on data published by the National Safety Council showing an 8.9% increase in highway fatalities for the first six months of 2016. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is sufficiency alarmed to open up its Fatality Analysis Reporting System database to researchers as the agency seeks help in better understanding where trouble may be revealed in the data.

http://tinyurl.com/zppda3d – Traffic Fatalities up Sharply in 2015

“Despite decades of safety improvements, far too many people are killed on our nation’s roads every year,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Solving this problem will take teamwork, so we’re issuing a call to action and asking researchers, safety experts, data scientists, and the public to analyze the fatality data and help find ways to prevent these tragedies.”

The US Department of Transportation has a right to be proud of the progress made in reducing the rate and number of highway fatalities through passive safety systems. But this happy period of progress is over.

At the same time that fatalities are on the rise, vehicle sales have recovered to historically high levels and gasoline prices have plunged. The focus on fleet fuel efficiency suddenly seems out of touch with the need for safety systems which tend to drive up the cost and drive down the fuel efficiency of automobiles.

Is it too much to ask NHTSA to shift gears from fuel efficiency – especially at a time of ample fuel availability and rampant sales of SUVs and crossovers – to safety? Could saving lives actually be a higher calling than saving the planet? I ask these questions because it doesn’t look like we can have our cake and eat it, too.

What if CAFE requirements were suspended or extended in the context of a new regime of vison zero objectives targeted at reducing the carnage on U.S. highways. Given the fact that the U.S. accounts for only about 3% of the 1.25M highway fatalities annually, such a nationwide effort to enhance safety and reduce fatalities might well vault the U.S. beyond its already strong leadership position in automotive safety.

More than a million global highway fatalities suggests a strong international market for vehicle safety innovations. That ought to serve as sufficient motivation to take on a vision zero agenda, but clearly something more is needed.

The time has arrived for NHTSA to set aside CAFE in favor of developing a Corporate Average Fatality Reduction system. Like CAFE, CAFR requirements will be applied to individual car companies, each of which will have its own fatality reduction targets. Unlike CAFE, car companies will not be allowed to exchange fatality reduction credits – the concept is too ghoulish to give serious consideration.

“The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled,” said NHTSA Administrator, Dr. Mark Rosekind. “While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities.”

The truly transformative element of such a program is that it will force a change in how car companies interact with insurance companies and their own customers. Car companies will suddenly be forced to care how their cars are actually being used in the wild – putting pressure on insurance companies and licensing authorities and driving schools and dealers to raise the levels of expectation regarding driving acumen.

Rather than simply blaming drivers for the annual slaughter of drivers, passengers and pedestrians, car makers will suddenly be answerable for understanding how people drive and what can be done to mitigate bad driving. More importantly it will create a competitive environment intended to foster the implementation of new safety systems without specifying the nature of those safety systems.

In the end, car makers might come to the conclusion that they must band together to share data to better understand the vulnerabilities of the driving public and their own vehicles. All car companies would be dependent on one another for success in reducing overall fatalities. (Perhaps regional or state-level vision zero targets will be applied as well.)

In this environment, the sharing of data between car companies and the provision of intervehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications in the interest of safety will be game-changing shifts in the industry. Will it be easy? Nah. Is it necessary? Yes.

NHTSA is taking a leadership position in opening up its crash data database, but this desperate plea for help suggests a need for desperate measures. It’s time for NHTSA and the USDOT to embrace the Vision Zero concept. After all, the U.S. should be leading the way in automotive safety not highway fatalities. The U.S. is currently fourth in total fatalities behind China, India and Brazil. That’s just wrong.

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