Almost from the moment that cars took to the road, accidents and injuries became commonplace. The first auto-related injury can be traced back to 1869, when Mary Ward was ejected from behind the wheel of her steam-powered vehicle after hitting a deep rut. Ward fell under a wheel and was crushed, dying instantly. In a rather spectacular twist of irony, it was Ms. Ward’s cousin who had invented the vehicle that eventually killed her.
We have come a long way since then, with car accident injuries and deaths dropping by about 50% in the last quarter century. Government regulations about the safety of vehicles has helped, as has the commitment of automakers in creating products that are safer to drive. The addition of airbags alone has helped speed up the decline in injuries and death by automobile.
The downside here is that the United States is lagging behind the rest of the world, as car injuries and fatalities have actually increased in the last 25 years. Experts point to a number of different factors in creating this spike, with the increase in motorists, the popularity of larger trucks and SUV’s, and the use of technology behind the wheel all playing a role.
“Rubbernecking” is also another factor when talking about car accidents. This is when people slow down or suddenly stop so that they can get a better look at a crash or unusual situation on the road. Rubbernecking can set off a chain reaction of collisions as the vehicle behind the slowed vehicle fails to react in time to the sudden change in the speed of traffic. Rubbernecking is now listed as the #1 cause of rear-end collisions in the US, with whiplash injuries very often the result.
Nowadays, automakers create safer vehicles by paying attention to technology and how it has changed the way we behave behind the wheel. Besides the aforementioned airbags, many modern cars now all come with proximity and lane drifting monitors that deliver loud signals to the cabin that alert the driver to the issue. These types of safety features have already proven their worth in Europe, as they have helped reduce the number of injuries from both single and multi-car collisions.
It’s not that easy to change human behavior, and this is especially true in the US, where people consider car ownership to be a rite of passage. People are now behind the wheel of their car more often than ever before, and often feel invulnerable when in that position of power. It is a total disregard of defensive driving techniques that is driving the collisions rates in the US upwards while the rest of the world is trending downwards.
Ironically enough, states that have less restrictive speed limit laws tend to have lower incidences of crashes that lead to injury and death. In fairness, these states often have fewer vehicles per capita on the road than those with tighter speed measures in place. Even when you take that factor out of the equation, the numbers still favor the less restrictive states. This would suggest that looking to lower the speed limit to prevent collisions and injuries may well be the wrong approach.
The reality here is that a two-tiered approach to the problem may well be what we need, with the main focus being driver distraction and age. It is undoubtedly smartphones that are the major issue, which is why states are now introducing laws that ban their use while a vehicle is in motion. Even when it’s legal to be on the phone behind the wheel, it’s still a terrible idea. There is a definite connection between cell phone use and an increase in car accidents.
Age is something else that needs to be paid attention to when talking about safety. The numbers clearly show that accidents spike when the driver is 16-20 or aged over 70. This is a little more difficult to fix, but there are things that can be done. Mandatory driver education classes are one way to go, while annual driving proficiency tests for those age groups have also been suggested. There has even been talk of placing a decal on any vehicle operated by someone on either of those age groups, letting other drivers know that they should perhaps be more cautious around said vehicles. The belief is that this will get others to adopt a defensive driving approach, making the roads that much safer.