Cars are getting smarter and smarter, but don’t expect them to replace human drivers overnight. The technology still has a long way to go to kick us out of the driver seat entirely. For one thing, these new robots might have to learn to be more human. In the meantime, human drivers will just have to wise up, or pay the price.
In the United States alone, more than 30,000 people a year are killed in car crashes, and human error is to blame for more than 90 percent of all crashes. It sounds like a no-brainer to tackle the problem at the source. And let’s face it—human drivers are increasingly distracted, inattentive, and slow to respond. But that’s precisely what makes semi-autonomous vehicles (which most vehicles in production right now are) potentially more dangerous while engineers continue to work towards developing cars that wouldn’t need human back-ups. And while it’s true that even when human drivers do respond, they’re not always predictable, think of those unexpected moves human drivers do that help.
While gestures from fellow drivers can sometimes stoke the flames of road rage, they can also take the edge off a busy rush-hour commute when a fellow driver signals you to merge in front of them, or stops to allow you to pull out of a parking lot into bumper-to-bumper traffic. And just as the same risk-taking impulses can sometimes get drivers into trouble, recognizing when it’s necessary to turn out of a parking lot without a wide open stretch of road gives human drivers an edge over rigidly programmed cars unable to adapt to real traffic situations, especially in congested areas. (Not to mention the uncanny factor. If you were a pedestrian waiting to cross the road, would you trust a robot unable to make eye contact or otherwise signal that it sees you?)
So ok, maybe self-driving cars aren’t the miracle solution we’ve been waiting for—at least not yet. But we can still work on the source, and the same research driving autonomous technology might clue us in to how we can protect ourselves behind the wheel. Researchers at MIT recently took a closer look at how people drive in an effort to better understand how to end distracted driving. What they found suggests that distracted drivers involved in a crash begin to lose focus well before the event. And it’s no wonder. Not only are there the same old familiar distractions—passengers, the radio, juggling that quick meal you grabbed between class and work on the other side of town. Cell phones and even in-car technology, like navigation screens, can be hard to resist.
Perhaps there are other technological approaches to increasing road safety without surrendering the wheel, like decluttering screens and applying do-not-disturb-type technology on those smart phones. But as Charlie Klauer, an engineer from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, emphasizes, ending driver distraction can’t all be on designers. The behavior has to change. Drivers need to be educated, and there needs to be more enforcement. Even if you’re not the distracted driver, there are still steps you can take to protect yourself while driving. It all starts with awareness. That’s where programs like Click It or Ticket come in.
Between May 22, 2017 and June 4, 2017, over 2,500 citations were attributed to added enforcement as part of a Click It or Ticket enforcement campaign in the state of North Dakota alone. The campaign consisted of increased enforcement as well as increased television and radio announcements. The results also—hopefully—included increased awareness, and not just of safety belt laws. While the campaign’s focus was on proper safety belt use, only 961 of the citations were issued for failure to wear a seat belt (with 38 for child restraint violations).
It might not seem like much, but even a gesture as simple as buckling up can have tremendous impacts. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 9 people are killed and over 1,000 injured as a result of distracted driving—daily. In 2015, nearly half of the 22,441 car crash fatalities were not wearing their seat belts. One third of all unbuckled occupants involved in fatal crashes were completely ejected from their vehicles, and of all vehicle occupants totally ejected from their vehicles, 80 percent were killed. According to the 2017 Indian Nations Highway Safety Plan, “the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of unintentional injury for Native American/Alaska Natives ages 1 to 44.”
Still not convinced seatbelts save lives? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that between 1975 and 2015, seat belts have already saved 344,447 lives. If everyone had been wearing seat belts during that same time, they estimate that over twice that many lives would have been saved.
By increasing awareness, we can hopefully all make better decisions while driving. But the wager is more than a citation. If the numbers don’t have you convinced, or you’re having trouble convincing your newly licensed teen to buckle up, NDDOT has a virtual reality video that might drive the message home. The video is downloadable on your smart phone and played through a 360 video app, or both the video and goggles will be made available to use free of charge to anyone who requests them for educational purposes. (Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 701-328-2598.) Put the phone into goggles for a fully immersive experience of what it’s like to be in a crash with an unbelted passenger.
Self-driving cars might be the future, but for now, human drivers will just have to buckle up and keep their eyes on the road.
 New Town News. 99.21. Friday, June 16, 2017.