Donald Trump says he has a secret plan for defeating ISIS in Syria, but says it would be self-defeating to share that plan with the American electorate and, presumably, ISIS itself. Administrator Mark Rosekind says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a plan for reducing highway fatalities to zero in the U.S., but that the solution won’t arrive until 2046.
I like Mark Rosekind. Mark Rosekind brought a breath of fresh air to a regulatory agency struggling to shrug off a reputation of suffering from “capture” by the industry it was created to oversee. Rosekind was given two years to make his mark. Mark Rosekind is starting to sound like an evasive politician.
This is unusual behavior for Mark, who has been one of the most direct Administrators NHTSA has ever seen. His insistence on 100% completion of vehicle recalls stands out among many initiatives taken on by NHTSA and the industry (with NHTSA goading) on his two-year watch.
But Rosekind’s reckoning has arrived in steadily rising highway fatalities. He may have two solutions. But they’re not in the current script.
Following a year, 2015, when the annual total of fatalities spiked 7%, interrupting nearly a decade of declining fatalities, the agency is now facing a 10% spike in highway fatalities in the first half of 2016. The agency has taken action on self-driving car guidelines, is expected to release “phase two” driver distraction guidelines, and may even gain President Obama’s blessing for vehicle-to-vehicle communications rule making. But none of these initiatives will stop the current bleeding on U.S. roadways.
The 10% increase in fatalities in the first half of 2016 comes against an increase in miles traveled of only 3%, suggesting that something sinister and deadly is afoot. It’s easy to see a range of sources contributing to the carnage including:
- A shift in vehicle sales to SUVs, pickup trucks, crossovers and generally larger cars as sales of more modestly sized sedans shrink while fuel prices plunge.
- The onset of ever more powerful engines and increasing speed limits.
- The onset of vehicles with powerful but noiseless electrified powertrains.
- The proliferation of smartphone connectivity systems contributing to in-cabin confusion and distraction including the misuse or disuse of these systems.
- Variable and often confusing infotainment system interfaces overall.
- Older cars – as consumers hang onto cars longer as new car prices rise.
In sum, drivers are being given larger and more powerful vehicles with increasingly distracting user interfaces and mobile devices with which to cope. There isn’t a lot that regulators can do in a short period of time, especially when most of the options on the table at the close of the Obama administration will have little or no impact in the short-term.
Two measures not in the current NHTSA playbook would have an immediate impact:
NHTSA is quietly working on a program called DADSS for Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety. The program calls for alcohol detection systems capable of disabling cars to be built in as optional or standard equipment. Bringing this technology to market will take years.
Lowering the legal blood alcohol content level to 0.02 from the current 0.08 in the U.S. will have the immediate impact of bringing zero tolerance to the question of drinking and driving. One third of all annual highway fatalities in the U.S. are attributed to alcohol. The current 0.08 allowable blood alcohol content level is an invitation – a temptation – for disaster. It is time to dial it down. The current fatality rate of 100 deaths/day in the U.S. is an embarrassment, a national tragedy, a shame, and a call to action.
Similarly, the current U.S. policy of tolerating and fostering 50 different state-level approaches to prohibiting texting or talking while driving has only served to confuse drivers further. These laws have also proven difficult to enforce – even as law enforcement officers have gotten more clever about checking smartphone usage by drivers at the scenes of crashes.
Better to take the European approach here and bar the touching of the phone or other mobile devices altogether while driving. This is easier for all drivers to understand and for law enforcement to apply.
With 100 people dying every day and thousands injured, we can’t wait until 2046. We need to save lives today. And that’s no secret.