Are Americans less vigilant drivers?

Traffic fatalities are on the rise again, according to preliminary federal data, and surveys suggest it might be because Americans are less concerned about their driving safety.

LM Otero/AP/File
Traffic stacks up on a highway in Dallas.

For several years, traffic fatality rates in the U.S. have been falling, reaching historic lows. Though there's some disagreement about the reasons for the decline, most credit improved safety features on automobiles (e.g. electronic stability control) and improved driving habits (e.g. wider disapproval of drinking and driving).

But the good news could be coming to an abrupt halt. The federal government's preliminary report on 2012 fatality rates suggests an increase of 5.3 percent, and the folks at AAA think they know what's behind the uptick: you've stopped caring

Every year, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety polls thousands of Americans to gauge their attitudes on driving habits and traffic safety issues. The Foundation recently analyzed four years worth of data compiled between 2009 and 2012, and the findings are a little disturbing: 

  • In 2009, 87 percent of those surveyed said that texting or emailing behind the wheel was a serious safety threat. In 2012, the number dropped to 81 percent. 
  • In 2009, 77 percent said that running a red light was completely unacceptable. In 2012, that figure fell to 70 percent -- and 38 percent said that they'd run a red light within the past 30 days.
  • In 2009, 71 percent of those surveyed said that drowsy driving was a very serious safety threat. In 2012, that number plummeted to 46 percent.
  • Perhaps most shocking: in 2009, 90 percent said that drinking and driving is a serious threat. In 2012, only 69 percent felt that way.

Bottom line: if these surveys are accurate, it appears that Americans are becoming less vigilant drivers. And while the shift in attitudes hasn't been officially linked to the expected rise in traffic fatalities (final numbers for 2012 should arrive in December), it can't be helping.

Have we become desensitized to these driving dangers? Have improvements from automakers led us to throw caution to the wind and say, "If anything happens, the airbags will save me!"? Have cuts in education and outreach programs made us forget the information that was drilled into our heads for so many years?

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