In early October, federal officials released the preliminary estimates of U.S. traffic fatalities during the first six months of 2016.
Fatalities have risen by an estimated 10.4 percent since the government's last assessment. This continues an unpleasant trend that began during 2014's economic recovery and hasn't stopped climbing since. For example, 2015's fatalities clocked in at 35,092--a 7.2 percent spike over the previous year's total. This year experienced a total of 17,775 traffic fatalities in its first half. A year earlier, that same period of time had a total of 16,100 deaths.
These numbers were revealed at a conference between a number of safety groups and government agencies, the expressed aim of which was to eliminate traffic injuries and deaths in the United States within the next thirty years. Presentations and input came from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the National Safety Council, the NHTSA, and a number of smaller government and private agencies, all of which voiced their commitments to this ambitious goal.
What's Causing The Dramatic Increase?
A lot more vehicles are moving to and fro on the roads and highways of the United States; as the economy rebounds from its dip a few years back, more jobs by necessity require more commuting. In Texas, we're certainly not strangers to taking a short drive to our destination--the generally spread-out nature of Lone Star cities means that we often need to get behind the wheel. The Federal Highway Administration recently estimated that U.S. drivers ran up a total of 1.58 trillion miles' worth of distance on the road, which constituted a 3.3 percent increase from the previous year's total. To relay that number on a more cosmic scale, that's roughly a quarter of a light-year of total travel.
The reporting agencies haven't yet released a specific breakdown of the numbers into individual causes. The preliminary total is just an aggregate based on reported fatalities from January to June. With time to analyze the data, we should see categorized results that provide a rough suggestion of the reasons these crashes occurred. Things like inebriation, exhaustion, sudden-onset health hazard, and vehicle malfunction will likely be some of the major contributory factors. I think, however, that we will see the continued rise of a former underdog category: distracted driving.
Once related to motorists who messily ate food, consulted road maps, or applied makeup while in the car, distracted driving mostly correlates these days to nigh-perpetual use of a cellular smartphone. I'd estimate that an easy 60% of the times I look at another driver at a stop light, they are intently staring downward. I want to believe this behavior is constrained to times when the vehicle is stopped, but we've all seen drivers barreling down the highway with the wheel in one hand and their phone in the other, clearly engaging in conversation either orally or digitally.
At the risk of repeating myself slightly, smartphone use is an increasingly-dangerous plague upon responsible, injury-free driving. There is virtually no reason to use one's phone behind the wheel, with the exception of making use of a map or directions app, and even that should be set up before putting the vehicle in gear and untouched during the the drive.
Distracted driving has become objectively more dangerous than drunk driving. Even though studies indicate the decline of the latter and the rise of the former, the legal measures taken to protect other drivers and pedestrians from Facebooking motorists are not terribly robust. State legislatures are gradually working on that deficiency, but experience significant pushback because of perceived threats to the rights of citizenry. Opponents of cell phone restriction argue that forbidding drivers from making use of their phones behind the wheel is tantamount to censoring their exercise of free speech. While I understand how that position is derived, I believe the risk posed to others who could suffer from the driver's decision outweighs his need to post a "selfie" while cruising at 60 miles per hour.
It's also important to counter that argument whenever it rears its ugly head, so let me note that driving is a privilege, not a right. The First Amendment is incredibly valuable, of course, but its purpose really is to protect you from government censorship related to your deeply-held personal beliefs, not some innocuous chatter in a moving vehicle. In a venue designed for the service of all--like a public road--the right of all citizens to expect protection from harm supersedes the right of an individual to recklessly cause it in the name of free speech.
Setting aside ideological differences, though, the logistics of enforcing such laws are complicated. The protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment mean that an officer needs a reason to stop a motorist (and rightly so!). Reasonable suspicion rules are far more permissive for traffic stops than for home investigations, but searching a car and finding a cellphone is not enough in and of itself. In some cases of distracted driving, there may be blatant signs that allow police to make a traffic stop--unusual speeds, erratic steering, abrupt braking--but unless the officer physically sees the driver making use of a phone, it can be very difficult to make any charges stick.
Given these deficiencies, prevention and awareness will likely play just as great a role as enforcement in limiting distracted driving fatalities. Numerous organizations, both private and government-funded, have run media campaigns for several years in a concerted attempt to increase personal responsibility behind the wheel. Given the rise in fatalities, it appears these campaigns aren't exactly reaching total saturation, but every effort counts.