Zero US traffic deaths by 2046: Is it a realistic goal?

Self-driving cars have made the goal of zero traffic fatalities achievable for the first time, says the US Department of Transportation.

Ben Gray/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP/File
Traffic inches along an Atlanta highway as a winter storm coats the region with snow and ice on Jan. 28, 2014.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration set an ambitious goal: to eliminate all traffic deaths in the country within 30 years. The aggressive new plan largely depends on the developing industry of self-driving vehicles in the United States.

The National Highway of Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a subsection of the US Department of Transportation, signed on to the deal, along with other agencies. The Transportation Department will give $1 million a year for the next three years in grants for the new zero deaths campaign.

But for NHTSA, the new plan isn't just about the distant future. The 30-year plan was prompted by a 7.2 percent jump in traffic fatalities in 2015, followed by an even bigger spike this year: NHTSA announced Wednesday that US traffic fatalities had jumped 10.4 percent in the first half of 2016.

"All of a sudden we're losing ground," NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind told USA Today. "We have an immediate crisis on our hands and we also have a long-term challenge."

The increase in fatalities may be due to the improving economy after the end of the Great Recession and low gas prices, leading to more Americans on the road, USA Today reported.

With 35,092 traffic fatalities in the US in 2015, some see the effort to bring that number down to zero as unrealistic. But recent advances in self-driving vehicles may hold the key to saving lives. Human error is a factor in 94 percent of accidents, according to NHTSA, and autonomous cars would theoretically be able to eliminate that factor entirely.

The new 30-year plan may depend on self-driving cars, but it will concentrate on increasing road and driver safety in other areas as well.

The new plan's roots go back to 1997, when Sweden initiated "Vision Zero," a program to find and eliminate the causes of deadly crashes. Since then, several countries and US cities have adopted the program. While many places saw reductions in fatalities, none have reached zero fatalities yet.

Making self-driving cars the norm could be difficult, as 80 percent of US drivers said in a recent survey that drivers should always have the option of taking the wheel, even in autonomous vehicles. As The Christian Science Monitor's Christina Beck reported:

Automakers measure vehicle autonomy on a five-point scale, with five representing a fully autonomous vehicle with no option for a human to drive, and a one representing a car with only a handful of automatic features, such as emergency braking.

Researchers found that most people would prefer to travel in a “modern plus” vehicle, that is, a car with two or more functions automated that still required the presence of an attentive human driver, although Level Four vehicles that contain a steering wheel are the "sweet spot" among the more autonomous options. Fully one-third of respondents said that they would never purchase a fully autonomous vehicle with no option to drive.

Distrust of new technology is to be expected in these early stages, say experts, but not all of the caution is unfounded. Several nonfatal accidents have involved self-driving cars, though most were due to some form of human error. But the first fatality involving the infant technology happened in June, when a Tesla crashed while in automatic driving mode.

"This is a bit of a wake-up call," Karl Brauer, an analyst with the auto research firm Kelley Blue Book, told The New York Times about the incident. "People who were maybe too aggressive in taking the position that 'We're almost there,' 'This technology is going to be in the market very soon,' maybe need to reassess that."

Too few autonomous vehicles are yet on the road to have a statistical consensus about their safety. But the technology is constantly improving, and more people have come to accept it as safe.

Still, it may be hard to convince most drivers to make the switch to fully autonomous vehicles in the next 30 years, especially in the US, where cars in popular media often represent freedom and independence, with the allure of the "Great American Road Trip" resonating with many citizens on a cultural level.

But driver independence has been curtailed before in the name of safety. In response to rising automotive deaths during the 1950s and 60s, the US government began requiring seat belts in all cars starting in 1968, despite resistance from many drivers.

Today, seat belts reduce serious collision-related injuries and deaths by about half, saving 12,802 lives in 2014 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We know that setting the bar for safety to the highest possible standard requires commitment from everyone to think differently about safety," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, according to the AP, "from drivers to industry, safety organizations, and government at all levels."

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