Cars are safer than they’ve ever been before. My test cars beep at me if I leave my lane, if they think I’m getting drowsy, or if I’m about to back up into something. They have multiple airbags, and even systems that detect when a crash is imminent so they can pre-tension the seatbelts and charge the brakes.
Some cars even grab the wheel when I’m about to do something profoundly stupid. Too bad they can’t apply the same technology to other aspects of my life. What’s more, people are better about using their seatbelts, and drunk driving is down, too.
So, given all this, why did driving fatalities go sharply up in the first six months of 2015? They soared 14 percent over the same period last year, reports the National Safety Council, and that’s a lot—almost 19,000 deaths. Injuries increased by a third, too. And just last year they were crowing about the death toll being down.
So what gives? You might think it’s all those idiots texting, despite the warnings, and I’m sure that’s part of it, but the big reason is kind of statistical—with “cheap gas” (I refuse to use that phrase for $3 a gallon) Americans are simply driving more. Nobody has a driving fatality in their living room. The 1.26 trillion miles we covered in the first five months of the year surpassed the previous record of 1.23 trillion (set in 2007).
Erin Stepp, a spokeswoman for AAA, concurs. "The increase in traffic fatalities is likely due to the fact that driving is up significantly this year, thanks to a stronger economy and lower gas prices," she said. The trend is pretty clear here.
Another reason is 70 mph speed limits, which my wife noted on a recent Connecticut-to-Orlando drive have taken over our Southern right-to-spurn-55 states. It’s catching on—10 states recently began working on higher speed limits.
According to Russ Rader, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Study after study shows that when speed limits go up, deaths on those roads go up as well. Crashes at these high speeds overwhelm the safety features that are built into modern vehicles. They’re not designed to handle crashes at 75 or 80 miles an hour.” And, of course, when the speed limit is 70, people will drive at 80.
Fast driving wastes gas, and let’s face it—we don’t drive as well as Germans, so don’t try to invoke the Autobahn on me.
This is a depressing trend, because we were holding steady with fatalities even as the number of cars on the road increased. Imagine the carnage if we were still driving those 1950s and 1960s boats—“safety” was a padded dashboard. And seatbelts? Well, that was an optional extra and only Ralph Nader cared.
Oh, and if you know anyone who still whines about having to wear a seatbelt, show them this!