New York Injury Law Blog

U.S. Traffic Deaths Spike Despite Auto Safety Improvements

Experts are puzzled by the results of a recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that revealed traffic accident deaths increased sharply in 2015, ending a five-decade trend of declining fatalities. The NHTSA report shows a 7.2 percent increase in traffic fatalities from 2014 to 2015 – the highest single-year increase since 1966.

The increase in fatalities is not just for passenger vehicles, but for all categories: cars, trucks, motorcycles, and pedestrians. Traffic deaths in pedestrian and bicycle accidents in 2015 were at a level not seen in 20 years.

Looking for Answers about Increased Car Accident Deaths

The studies done by NHTSA report on what caused certain percentages of accidents, but they are not able to determine why those causes increased. For instance, NHTSA reports that human factors contributed to the majority of crashes. Almost half of the passenger vehicle occupants killed in accidents were not wearing seatbelts. And according to NHTSA, research shows that 1 in 3 fatalities involved speeding or drunk drivers, and 1 in 10 fatalities involved speeding.

The abrupt increase in fatalities is surprising not just because they had been on a downward trend, but because the downward trend of the previous years seemingly had a clear explanation. Advances in safety like automated braking, backup cameras, blind-spot warning and better airbags have supposedly led to fewer and fewer people dying in traffic accidents every year.

So what’s going on?

What Would Cause the Increase?

According to NHTSA, there was an increase in driving in 2015, driven perhaps by job growth and low fuel prices. There were 3.5% more miles driven in 2015 in the U.S. than in the previous year, which was the largest increase in 25 years. More miles driven can mean higher fatality rates.

The Department of Transportation, NHTSA and the White House are joining forces to release data to private sector partners and asking in return for their help in analyzing the data and coming up with possible causes and solutions.

Possible Solutions to Make Roads Safer 

NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind believes that most traffic fatalities are simply the result of poor driving behaviors. According to him, “The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled … . While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities.”

Some possible solutions are being tested and implemented already, like speed governors that prevent the car from going over a certain speed, apps that prevent drivers from texting or emailing while driving, better enforcement of seatbelt use by the vehicle itself, and, as the most extreme example, self-driving cars.

An area that could use more attention is how to prevent drivers from driving while distracted. While certain driving behaviors such as not using seatbelts or driving while intoxicated do not change much from year to year, the number of people driving while distracted is on the rise.

As U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said, “Solving this problem will take teamwork, so we’re issuing a call to action and asking researchers, safety experts, data scientists, and the public to analyze the fatality data and help find ways to prevent these tragedies.”

Self-Driving Cars

The future is here. Autonomous or “self-driving” cars have arrived on the scene, and Americans are asking tough technical, moral and ethical questions. How do they work? Will they be safe? How much will they cost? Will they be able to drive on highways, back roads, off-road, through school zones, etc.? Where are the limits? Among these questions, personal injury attorneys must also consider who will be responsible for injuries and damages when there are car accidents.

Where Are Self-Driving Cars?

Google recently unveiled its fleet of unmanned cars in California. The state has implemented laws that require steering wheels and other traditional instruments to ensure that test drivers can take over in an emergency. The West Coast seems to be on the front lines of this new technology, but if successful, these self-driving cars could easily make their way across the country to New York State.

Who Is Ultimately Responsible for a Self-Driving Car Accident?

Given how personal injury laws work, the greatest challenge when deciding liability in a self-driving car accident is determining who had the duty to exercise caution. There are several possible parties who could be held responsible.

  • If the vehicles owner/driver is responsible: 

    If we hold the vehicles owner/driver responsible, then how could he or she avoid such liability? It seems unfair to hold people responsible for conduct that they cannot control. Therefore, if an owner simply plugs in coordinates and lets the car do the driving, what conduct is actually negligent? This seems to be an unjust solution

  • If the manufacturer is responsible: 

    If we hold the vehicle manufacturer responsible, then manufacturers may opt to forego further progress. Perhaps the risk of creating such vehicles may outweigh the profits to be earned. Also, what would such liability do to the overall cost of the technology? It seems unlikely that society would place ultimate responsibility on a car manufacturer for all accidents.

  • If the software and logistics systems are responsible:

    There are also multiple software, logistics, and tracking systems that would control these self-driving, autonomous vehicles. These systems could fail. It will probably be very difficult to decide which autonomous vehicle caused an accident, and even once determined, it could be challenging to determine whether it was the vehicle’s mechanical systems or the software and tracking systems that caused the accident. Therefore, companies that create these systems will probably argue for some type of liability limit as well.

In the meantime, if you have lost someone you love in a car accident or have been in an accident yourself, contact our Binghamton personal injury attorneys today for a free consultation.

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