Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy weekend. The Fourth of July weekend is always a big danger zone—in 2014, eight people died and a whopping 11,400 were injured in fireworks' accidents alone. It’s the deadliest day on the American calendar.
But it's cars that are the big culprit. From 2008 to 2012, there were an average of 127 weekend fatalities in auto accidents. And this year is shaping up to be epically dangerous. According to the National Safety Council, there could be 385 deaths and 11,400 injuries.
The weekend, despite its festive trappings and patriotic good cheer, is a perfect storm for things to go bad. There are tons of drivers on the road, many of them having imbibed oceans of booze. It’s hardly surprising that alcohol is a factor in many of the holiday deaths (41 percent, on average, compared to 33 percent on Christmas day, according to the Insurance Institute). And the usual heat makes people dehydrated, which increases the effects of liquor.
People also head to the emergency room over the holiday weekend because of bike crashes, shark attacks (admittedly, rare), heat prostration, boat mishaps and, obviously, drug overdoses.
But your chances of making it through the weekend unscathed are markedly better if you don’t get in a car. Or if you do, the National Safety Council cautions that you do the following:
- Wear your seatbelts—they’ll likely save 155 lives during the weekend.
- Don’t speed.
- Don’t—under any circumstances—text or talk on the phone while you’re driving. The important thing is getting to your destination in one piece. It doesn’t matter if you forgot to pick up the hot dog rolls.
- And if you’re drinking, let someone else drive.
Will the holiday death toll always be with us? If Volvo has anything to say about it, no. The company has a safety manifesto that declares, “By 2020, nobody shall be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo.” That’s a mighty big statement, and Volvo spokesman Anders Eugensson also added that there is a “long-term vision to create cars that will not crash” at all.
One Volvo spokesman later backtracked a bit, saying that “freak accidents do happen,” and “not even the Pope is infallible,” but still.
Obviously, people can’t be trusted behind the wheel, so Volvo’s vision can only be realized with us out of the equation (or cars so protective of their occupants that they can walk away from even the most horrendous accident). Self-driving cars will be programmed to obey the Prime Directive and avoid hurting humans at all costs. The key is vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications: cars will use sensors, lasers, radar and the cloud to know what else is on the road—and avoid hitting them. A totally death-free holiday weekend would depend on virtually all cars being V2V-capable.
I asked Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid if Volvo is likely to achieve its 2020 vision. He’s not buying it. The company is launching a real-world field test of semi-autonomous XC90s in 2017, but that’s a long way from having self-driving cars in the showrooms.
“As long as humans have the ability to take control or Volvo vehicles have to co-exist on the road with other vehicles, I’m skeptical that Volvo or anyone else can provide sufficient protection to guarantee survival under all possible scenarios,” Abuelsamid said. “I think in the most common situations at reasonable speeds they can probably dramatically reduce the severity of injuries and the number of fatalities.” And, of course that’s a great accomplishment in itself.
As to a future when cars “will not crash,” well, as Abuelsamid points out, the future stretches out into infinity. “I can foresee a time when cars do not crash,” he said. “I just don’t believe that point in time will come in my or my children’s lifetime. Aircraft have been largely autonomous for decades and they still occasionally fall out of the sky.”