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Driving While Human: Is Car Safety an Oxymoron?

Posted: 04/ 4/11 04:14 PM ET

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just released its estimate for 2010's motor vehicle crash fatalities -- and it was great news. With 3 percent fewer deaths last year, 1,020 fewer American families woke up today mourning a mother or father, sister or brother, daughter or son.

Given the astounding number of miles that we drive each year as a nation -- 20.5 billion --our attention often turns to deaths per mile, where there was also good news: fatalities dipped even while miles driven rose. Credit is given to enhanced safety features in automobiles, improved road engineering, and successful safety education -- especially those efforts against driving under the influence or without a seatbelt.

So, can we keep the good news coming? Yes, if we recognize a few realities about cars and their drivers:

Driving is still the most dangerous activity most of us undertake each day.

This is because driving without error is impossible, and the tiniest error made in a car, even one with the latest safety devices, can have devastating consequences. Even now, each day about 90 people die and each year thousands are brain-damaged and wheelchair-bound after being hit by a car, in a car, or both. When we focus exclusively on fatalities, we can ignore the more than 1 million injured each year, a hidden nation of the wounded and their caregivers.

Just because the roads are safer, doesn't mean you are.
Individually, you may not be much safer. For one thing, people tend to take more risks, like speeding and texting, when made more confident by better-braking cars and newly-widened roads. And much of the risk reduction provided by safety improvements is erased if you drive more miles. NHTSA data also makes clear that how safe you are also depends on the region and town in which you reside.

Futuristic auto technologies are tantalizing, but driving will never be fail-safe.
The promise that cars will someday drive themselves, eliminating human error, or be so engineered that drivers will walk away from crashes unscathed, is alluring. But even if we do get cars that 'talk' to each other and warn of an impending crash and "road trains" that speed traffic along highways, we won't unseat the drivers. And in all our fallibility, even if we do not drink and drive or text and drive, we will continue to drive while distracted; drive while tired or in a hurry; drive while none-of-the-above but still not in full control of our cars or environment. In other words, we will continue to drive while human.

And here's another rub: the vehicles of the future will still need humans to build them. In 2010 -- the future dreamed of by the drivers of decades past -- vehicle recalls spiked above 20 million, the third highest since record-keeping began.

The automakers are pushing new technologies that are at cross-purposes to safety.

Auto safety innovations, like airbags and electronic stability control, have so far kept just ahead of new technologies that provide yet more distractions for drivers. This year's high-profit margin offering from one of the automakers? A front seat 'infotainment' system that can find movie listings, tag songs, hold your restaurant table, and provide a hot spot for five laptops. Distracted driving now contributes to 20 percent of injury crashes and 16 percent of fatalities. If we keep loading our cars with more in-car electronics, we could reverse the gains we've made.

We can engineer cars and roads to be safer, but the safest way to engineer our communities is to make cars less necessary.

As individuals, we each have options to drive less that can make our families safer --combining trips, walking or biking shorter trips, and shopping on the internet are just a few. Providing more and better transit options, planning our communities in smarter ways, and improving residents' ability to walk and bike to work, school, and shop will reduce the numbers of cars on the road and the number of miles driven: the surest way to improve the safety of our communities.

The progress that has been made in reducing fatalities from car crashes is worthy of celebration. We also must remember that driving under any conditions remains an inherently dangerous act, and we need to retain a healthy fear of the automobile. Though it is not as exciting as visions of vehicles hovering above highways, the most effective way we now have to protect our families from crash risk is to drive less.

Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at Brown University's Watson Institute, and Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, are the authors of "Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives" (Palgrave Macmillan).