School shootings and mass shootings, unfortunately, continue to dominate news headlines around the country. With 417 mass shootings across the United States in 2019, our growing concern is understandable. From a purely statistical standpoint, however, the CDC National Center for Health Statistics finds that motor vehicle traffic deaths are roughly equal to firearm related deaths. According to their recently published statistics, there were 39,773 firearm related deaths in 2017 compared to 38,659 motor vehicle traffic deaths.
Despite these similar figures, fatal car accidents receive much less media or political attention. As one of the leading causes of death in the United States, however, motor vehicle traffic should be considered as a serious threat to public health.
The Insurance Connection
One element that connects driving fatalities to the issue of public health is insurance. While health insurance is at the forefront of many political debates, most states only require drivers to have some sort of minimum liability insurance. Personal injury protection (PIP) benefits are only required in 12 states, and many state laws make it increasingly harder for drivers to benefit from this insurance protection.
Drivers in Florida, for example, have recently seen a decrease in PIP benefits due to a new law passed earlier this year. Today, all Florida drivers are required to have at least $10,000 in personal injury protection coverage. However, in order to receive those benefits, people who have suffered injuries in a car accident must visit a doctor within fourteen days of the accident.
Furthermore, this new Florida law mandates that insurance companies can deny PIP benefits if drivers do not see an insurance company appointed doctor, if they are not diagnosed with an emergency medical condition, or if the injured driver has seen as a chiropractor, massage therapist, or acupuncturist.
Even though motor traffic related deaths are one of the leading causes of death in the country, insurance standards are seemingly lagging behind. This only exacerbates the public health consequences of car accidents.
A Look at the Numbers
While we might equate motor vehicle accidents and deaths as a modern-day phenomenon and health problem, the motor vehicle death rate actually reached its peak in 1937. The relative novelty of driving, inadequate road infrastructure, and improperly built vehicles lead to a death rate of 30.8 deaths per 100,000 people that year. Despite the fact that road crashes are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people aged between 1 and 54, the death rate is significantly lower from earlier years in terms of per capita crashes and deaths.
Unfortunately, driving fatalities in the United States continue to be significantly higher than in other high-income countries around the world. A few countries that have lower car accident-related deaths than the United States include:
- United Kingdom
The Role of Artificial Intelligence and Self-Driving Cars
In 2018, a self-driving Uber car hit and killed a woman pedestrian in Arizona. The idea of self-driving cars can strike fear into many people who imagine a future where the vehicles that mobilize our society are beyond our control. While self-driving technology is still relatively new, it could present a significant opportunity to reduce car crash fatalities in the future.
From September 2016 to March 2018, the company Uber extensively tested several different types of self-driving vehicles. Over that year and a half, there were 37 reported crashes and only one fatality.
Around the United States, around 90 percent of traffic accidents are thought to be caused by some sort of driver error. The increasing presence of smartphones in our cars will most likely continue to cause distraction-related car accidents and deaths.
While autonomous driving technology is still largely in the phase of development, it has the ability to essentially eliminate 90 percent of car accidents caused by driver error. Another benefit of self-driven cars is that when accidents and errors do occur, major efforts are made to improve the technologies and thus avoid repeating those mistakes in the future.
For example, after the above-mentioned accident in Arizona, Uber invested major resources in helping to improve the driverless technology to identify pedestrians who were jaywalking which was the reported cause of the accident. Once a problem is identified, technological improvements to driverless systems can essentially stop the issue from resurfacing. The same is unfortunately not true with human drivers. Despite repeated warnings, tickets, and educational campaigns, human drivers are simply too stubborn and inflexible to stop texting while driving, which is another major cause of accidents.
Car accidents are a major public health issue that we rarely reflect on. An analysis of the statistical evidence, however, shows that we should begin to think of driving as a public health menace and create policies that treat it as such.