I had the privilege of being invited to a summit of traffic safety leaders and experts, convened in Washington by Dr. Mark Rosekind, who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Speaking to about 80 people at the start of the summit Thursday, Dr. Rosekind cited a number I’ve heard him mention at other traffic safety conferences -- 32,627. That’s the number of people who died in traffic crashes nationwide in 2014. He makes a point of using the exact number, rather than saying more than 32,000 or nearly 33,000, since every single part of the total represents a life gone – a loved one, a co-worker or fellow member of the community lost. He feels it’s important to always try to personalize those numbers so they’re more than mere statistics.
Dr. Rosekind convened the meeting, which he titled “Driving Behavioral Change in Traffic Safety,” as a first step in laying out a plan to reach a goal many might think impossible – zero traffic deaths. He says we’ve become too accepting of the idea of losing tens of thousands of people to crashes. And while we’ve brought that number down from more than 44,000 a decade ago, he says the lower total should still be unacceptable to us, he said. For a variety of reasons – lower gas prices, more miles driven, distraction by cellphones and mobile devices – early numbers coming in for 2015 show the number of deaths may actually rise by as much as ten percent.
Dr. Rosekind’s vision is to bring the number of traffic fatalities down to zero. He knows it could take a few decades, but he points to a convergence of things that show now is a good time to begin the effort.
The public is tiring of losses due to selfish behavior like drinking or texting while driving. Laws have been passed and more continue to be established making such bad behavior illegal. Technology is helping make us safer drivers, by warning us when we go out of our lane or get to close to another car, and it even can take control and apply the brakes to avoid a crash.
We’ve been hearing a lot about driverless cars. Early predictions when Google introduced the concept a few years ago said we’d be in driverless cars by 2020. That turned out to be overly optimistic, but experts told us today that we could see 40 or 50 percent of the nation’s auto fleet being driverless by 2035.
Another change that’s on the horizon is what’s being called mobility service. We’re seeing the tip of that iceberg now with Uber, Lyft and other on-demand car services that will eventually make car ownership a less attractive option for many. Why own a car that spends most of its time sitting in the garage when you can get one, along with a driver, when and where you need it?
For the traffic safety community that I’m proud to be a part of, through my many years of work for clients including NHTSA and The National Road Safety Foundation, there will be some big challenges ahead, as well as some great opportunities to try new things and expand others that have been proven to work.
NHTSA’s Dr. Rosekind ended the meeting today by challenging us to think of ways to move toward Zero. He plans to invite us back in a few months to begin to draw up a plan, with short and long-term goals and action items to begin meeting the challenge. I look forward to it.
I’ll be writing more in this space over the next several days about the conference and the various challenges and opportunities to get to zero traffic fatalities.
.Photo: with Dr. Rosekind, at right