This sounds a little bit like the noise a shoe makes when it hits the floor after dropping:
Over the past two years, after decades of declining deaths on the road, U.S. traffic fatalities surged by 14.4 percent. In 2016 alone, more than 100 people died every day in or near vehicles in America, the first time the country has passed that grim toll in a decade. Regulators, meanwhile, still have no good idea why crash-related deaths are spiking: People are driving longer distances but not tremendously so; total miles were up just 2.2 percent last year. Collectively, we seemed to be speeding and drinking a little more, but not much more than usual. Together, experts say these upticks don’t explain the surge in road deaths.
There are however three big clues, and they don’t rest along the highway. One, as you may have guessed, is the substantial increase in smartphone use by U.S. drivers as they drive. From 2014 to 2016, the share of Americans who owned an iPhone, Android phone, or something comparable rose from 75 percent to 81 percent.
The second is the changing way in which Americans use their phones while they drive. These days, we’re pretty much done talking. Texting, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the order of the day—all activities that require far more attention than simply holding a gadget to your ear or responding to a disembodied voice. By 2015, almost 70 percent of Americans were using their phones to share photos and follow news events via social media. In just two additional years, that figure has jumped to 80 percent.
For at least a decade now I have been pointing out how for all of our concerns with people talking on cell phones on the road, the roads have never been safer. All of the new dangers being presented weren’t enough to overcome advances in automobile safety technology and better civil engineering. And now the longstanding trend has finally reversed itself. It looks like I am finally losing that argument. The case that the uptick has been caused by smartphone usage is inconveniently convincing.
An interesting thing is that we’re talking about it less now than we were when traffic fatality rates were still declining. I think we have talked ourselves to the end of the conversation before we really needed to even have the conversation. Now that maybe we do, we seem to have moved on. What’s more, it’s not clear there is much to discuss. We’ve rhetorically put ourselves into a corner where it’s not clear realistic mitigating steps are allowed and we’re left with effective but impossible ones.
You may have seen a billboard on the side of the road that says “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving.” This motto is accurate from a legal standpoint but not much else. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, there is a huge difference in risk between somebody driving with a .08 BAC and .16. We may not want either on the road, and there may be reasons to treat them the same legally (though I doubt it), but if I am driving home at one in the morning and I had a choice of sharing the road with 20 drivers with a .09 BAC or two drivers with .18, I’ll probably take the former. While most drunk drivers are at the lower end of the legal limit, fatal accidents and even simple arrests usually involve people at around or more than double the legal limit.
Having lowered the legal drinking limit to .08, we have also labeled all manner of other behavior ask being “as risky as drunk driving” even if it’s not as risky as the real problem of drunk drivers. If you listen to sports, eat, talk on a cell, or are simply under-rested, you’re “as dangerous as a drunk driver.” It’s less than entirely clear what category of drunk, though. But lower limits and the inability to differentiate between buzzed driving and drunk driving makes such comparisons hard.
So for years everybody was freaking out over people talking on cell phones and driving. We passed some ineffectual laws requiring that they be hands free even though we knew that wasn’t really the problem. Accidents that otherwise would have been avoided were happening, but the roads weren’t getting more dangerous. Until now, apparently. As the article indicates, it took more than just talking. We had to walk a lot further down the spectrum of risk before the trends reversed themselves.
Laws against tweeting on the road, like texting and talking on phones, are almost certainly going to be ineffective. Obama’s Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood wanted to actually disable phones in moving vehicles, and that’s just never going to happen. To the extent that we can do anything about this, it’s likely going to involve accepting some risk. Which probably means that we’re not going to do anything about it.
What I mean by “accepting some risk” here is basically allowing people to do some of the things that we would rather they not do, but to enable them to do these things with some lesser degree of risk. That means more voice-activated technology. It means good transcription and phones reading text messages out to you. All of these things are possible, but they’ve yet to be fully embraced. From a public health standpoint voice activation has been determined to be “a safety risk.”
Many applicable mobile apps aren’t even trying. One of the better navigation apps out there is HERE We Go. It has offline maps, up-to-date maps, decent time estimates, and good speed limit alerts. However, if you’re wanting to put in a destination that’s already in your address book, you’re looking at a minimum of six button presses and usually seven. The good news for them and other drivers is that I’m not going to even attempt that on the road (Google Maps has reasonable good voice direction), but it doesn’t appear to be designed with actual use in mind. Due to this, I often just end up not using it to begin with.
Others, meanwhile, may be trying too hard. I can’t speak to Apple’s efforts, but I’ve test-driven Android Auto and found that the biggest problem I had with it was that it was way too conservative. I simply can’t do the things I want to do with it. Rather than meekly accepting this, I end up bypassing it entirely and using my own setup. I think my setup has a similar risk profile as using a dash-top GPS device and the car stereo; it could be a lot safer. But Google has its own concerns, the biggest of which is they have strong liability incentives to err on the side of caution. If I’m not using their system and I get into an accident, that’s not their problem. If I’m using their system, plaintiff’s attorneys may start asking, “Why did you allow this feature that took people’s eyes off the road?” The end result is more overall risk.
We might like to think that we can convince people not to do dangerous things, but that’s not going to work. We’re at that uncomfortable phase where we have the ability to do more things than ever, but we haven’t figured out how to make it easy, non-distracting, and seamless. All the while, we are arguably discouraging further innovation that will help us get there faster. The long term solution is going to be cars that scan for pedestrians and whatnot. But in the meantime, suggesting that we should keep these things shelved until they’re really safe is ultimately going to be encouraging people to text with one eye and one hand while trying to keep the other one of each on the road.
The main thing we need to never lose sight of is that operating 3000-pound machinery that hurls down roads 30 to 60 miles per hour is not a question of safe vs. dangerous, but a question of relative danger.
Image by mmechtley