On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA, talks about the disturbing rise in crash fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.
Since pandemic stay-at-home advisories went into effect in 2020, traffic fatalities have risen. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic in 2021, a 10.5 percent increase from 38,824 fatalities in 2020.
A new report found unsafe driving behaviors, including speeding, red-light running, drowsy driving, and driving impaired rose from 2020 to 2021. Nelson explains that the most alarming increase was among drivers admitting to getting behind the wheel after drinking enough that they felt they were over the legal limit, an increase of nearly 24 percent. According to survey data from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, that represents a reversal in the steady declines of dangerous driving behaviors in the three years from 2018 through 2020.
The problem illustrates how we should think about technology, whether it is GPS navigation or sophisticated driver assistance. As Nelson observes, the technology can enhance safety but not entirely shift the responsibility from the driver.
Nelson also talks about crashes and fatalities caused by drivers traveling the wrong way on freeways. They studied the wrong-way crashes between 2015 and 2018 and found a 34 percent increase over the years between 2010 and 2014. They found that six in 10 of those crashes involved impaired drivers.
Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. Continuing on the theme of Traffic Safety and what can be done about the increase in speeds and crashes and related driver behavior that we saw beginning with the pandemic in 2020. I'm going to follow up on a discussion last week about automated vehicles and the promise that they hold to reduce those crashes someday greatly. But today I'm going to talk about the data that shows what's been going on with rising crashes. So, Jake Nelson, who is AAA's director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research, has agreed to come on the podcast and talk a little bit about what they found recently in their research about all the things we've talked about, and we've seen in other statistics and anecdotally with the incredible speeds that people began driving at the beginning of the pandemic as many vehicles on the road. People felt like they could go faster, and they did. There were also other risky behaviors that increased, including impaired driving, people driving without seat belts, and aforementioned higher speeds. All this adds up to more traffic deaths after a few years of the numbers going in the right direction both nationally and in Michigan. So, Jake. Thank you for taking time to be here and talking to us about what AAA is doing to try to make our roads safer. So, Jake, thank you for taking time to be here and talking to us about what AAA is doing to, you know try to make our roads safer.
Jake Nelson: You bet. I'm glad to be here. You know you highlighted some of the big findings that we've gathered from federal crash statistics about the role of alcohol and speed and being ejected from your vehicle if in a car crash because you're not belted as some of the big contributing factors. But there are others and you alluded to that, and the AAA foundation has been trying to dig into this and peel back layers of the onion to understand better. Why the spike in highway fatalities and one of the things that that we found and look at how risky different driving populations are. Who drove less, drove the same and drove more during the lockdowns for example. And in short, the folks who drove less were among the safest drivers on the road. Those who drove the same were very much like that former group, but the people who drove more during the lockdowns were a small group but were highly risky in terms of risk-taking behaviors that they engaged in behind the wheel and that they admitted to. So, our estimates are underestimates because of you know people are not always willing to admit to behaviors that they know are wrong. Even when we control for gender and age, so we know younger males tend to be the riskiest drivers on the road overall, generally speaking. But even when we control for those demographics, this small group of drivers who drove more during the pandemic were still more willing to engage in all kinds of risk-taking behaviors.
Cranson: So, I think the one thing that jumped out at me from the news release kind of summarizing your most recent research, that was between 2020 and 2021, you saw an increase of nearly 24% people getting behind the wheel after drinking and knowing that they probably were, you know, over the legal limit. I don't know what's more shocking, the number or the number of people that were willing to admit that.
Nelson: Right? Which is, like I said before, probably an underestimate.
Cranson: Yeah, it probably is because there's a certain number, they're willing to admit that probably means a certain number more probably a large number than weren't willing to.
Nelson: Yeah, I mean, there are other factors here too. And so why would people admit to behaviors like driving when they're at or above the legal limit. There were startling statistics in that same study that were tied to the use of cannabis and driving within an hour of consumption of cannabis products and speeding and those kinds of things. And I think, you know, we don't understand the magnitude of the impact, but we do suspect that law enforcement resources are a factor here too, because if motorists do not perceive, they don't perceive that the likelihood they'll get caught by police for engaging in these kinds of risky behaviors, they're more likely to do it. And while it's not universal across the country. Certainly not in the state of Michigan. There are law enforcement shortages in some departments, and the everyday users of our transportation system probably notice that, where those shortages do exist.
Cranson: You know, I think that it starts with a fundamental lack of understanding of what motivates law enforcement, going to your point about you're not going to take the chances if you think there's a chance that you'll get caught, that people think that, whether it's the state police or local police agency, they're just out there trying to bust people. Well, that's not the case. They're trying to make the road safer. And that's why it used to seem counterintuitive to me when they would say ahead of time that we're going to have a DUI checkpoint. And I think, well, why would you tell people that?
Nelson: Well, it does deter.
Cranson: Yeah. It deters, it really works. And that's why a lot of times you'll see them sitting in the medium and, you know, people think they're just sitting there waiting to people know they're just sitting there because they know people will slow down if they're there.
Nelson: Right one hundred percent, if there's one thing I've learned over my time working at AAA and traffic injury prevention, and enjoying the great relationship that AAA has built with law enforcement throughout the United States is that law enforcement does not want to have to do all the paperwork that comes with making an arrest or issuing a ticket. So, deterrence is the preferred mode and also that's what we should want. We should just push for motorists to make better, safer decisions when behind the wheel of a car. We don't need to ticket or warn. We need you to just do the right thing.
Cranson: So, what's your personal theory I mean, going back, AAA has been around since 1902, I think. So going back to the earliest days of the automobile. And we know that the people who are making the automobiles were very concerned about liability and that's one of the things that contributed to them and other industries contributed to us calling them accidents instead of crashes, which crash implies human behavior, which is what they are. Why do we accept 42,000 people a year to die out on the roads? We certainly wouldn't put up with any number near that when it came to, you know, the airlines.
Nelson: Yeah, that's a good question. It's this idea of the Traffic Safety culture that we have in our country today and the one that we aspire to where we don't accept that high number of people dying in traffic crashes. And I think it has a lot to do with sort of the frequency with which these kinds of incidents occur, right? And so, air travel is the safest mode of travel and airplane crashes are relatively infrequent or rare and so when they happen, they startle people, and they scare people. And you know, traffic crashes happen all the time. We all know somebody or we ourselves have been involved in a traffic crash. We almost become desensitized to it. And that has a lot to do with why people aren't demanding more in terms of action to reduce the number of people dying on our highways.
Cranson: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. I had spoken recently with Jeff Farrah, who's the Executive Director of the Automated Vehicle Industry Association about what autonomous vehicles could mean to safety and that whole concept that we all feel like we're a good driver, you know, but the other guy isn't. And certainly, a computer couldn't be better. Well, what's happened with the airline industry and what they've done to all but eliminate crashes has a lot to do with the use of that technology, right?
Nelson: Absolutely. But with that automation, that is commonplace in the airline industry also comes pretty intense and rigorous training that's repeated over time for the people operating those aircraft. And obviously if you wait long enough as a novice driver you can get your license to drive without having to take a driver’s education course and this is something that we're struggling with in highway safety all across the US and so like the training just isn't as rigorous. It's not mandatory in all cases and it's not repeatable over time and that is a fundamental difference between how humans interact with automation in an aircraft as compared to how maybe one day we'll interact with automation and a motor vehicle. You know, I think I am more optimistic about the safety benefits that advanced driver assistance technologies or as some call them the building blocks of vehicle automation can bring to us in the near term and save lives today. Then I am, you know, fully self-driving cars being commonplace in the fleet within my lifetime.
Cranson: I agree, I wish that it would happen more quickly, but I think you're right. I think the incremental gains along the way, you know whether its lane assist or adaptive cruise control or certainly auto braking and you see a lot of different automakers advertising that auto braking in commercials and they're really good if they make the point really well, right, that it does work and we're all going to be distracted at one time or another even before that's created all the new.
Nelson: You're absolutely correct. But we also have to remember we have to be educated about it in the first place. But the limitations of these technologies and what they were designed to do, what they weren't designed to do and the kinds of environments and situations in which they won't function the way that we might be accustomed to them functioning. And so, I think industry itself could do a better job of making consumers aware of those limitations in those scenarios so that we can be prepared for them than they do today.
Cranson: Yeah, I wonder what would be the incentive to do that you think that would come from NHTSA pushing on industry more for that or how would you make that happen from a regulatory standpoint?
Nelson: Well, I mean it could be, it could be handled from a regulatory standpoint but AAA for, I'd say the last ten years has sort of leaned away from regulatory action over the auto industry as it relates to highway safety and pushed more toward voluntary action. And so, a lot of the research that we've done over the years looking at sort of the pros and cons and the opportunities to improve the design features of advanced driver assistance technologies or you know, the integration of infotainment systems into cars. We have, you know, met with members of industry before we've issued our news release to share with them the results of the work to talk it through with them, to answer their questions in hopes that they can trust our honest interest which is in seeing better designs and enhance safety. And that AAA doing this research isn't really about a ‘gotcha’ of the auto industry. We're trying to help them improve the products and make them safer. You know, every auto automaker, every state DOT the USDOT, everyone says safety is our top priority. I think, you know, in most cases we could be doing more to sort of walk that talk and I think there's a lot of room for improvement in the auto industry.
Cranson: Yeah, well said and I certainly commend your commitment to transparency and having those discussions and communication.
Cranson: Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.
MDOT Message: The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person, or other object, it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error, we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads. Safely.
Cranson: Let's talk a little bit about wrong way crashes because we've seen a rise in those in Michigan lately. It might be a blip. It always seems to come in bunches and not on the same freeways. There are some things that you know have seen some success and I know you're not a Traffic Safety engineer, but you're familiar with some of the things that have been done without a great deal of expense to help influence that driver behavior. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Nelson: Sure. So, I mean we did a study a few years back essentially updating an analysis of crash data that the NTSB had done about 10 years ago. And we were trying to understand, you know, the magnitude and scope of wrongly driving crashes and the contributing factors, that kind of thing. And so, we looked at data between the years of 2015 and 2018. There were about 2,008 deaths during that period of time. It's about 500 deaths per year as a result of wrong way driving crashes. That's a 34% jump from the period of time between 2010 and 2014 where there were only about 375 people dying per year in wrong way driving crashes. And so, I think we alluded to this before earlier in the segment about the most common contributing factors and so, alcohol impairment is the single most common and frequent contributing factor to these kinds of crashes. 6 in 10 wrong way driving fatalities involved alcohol, impaired driver, or older age. So, drivers over the age of 70 statistically are overrepresented and wrong way driving crashes, and we talk a little bit about why that might be. And then in terms of a protective factor, driving with a passenger can bring some protection for the obvious reason of a passenger can help monitor the driving environment, alert you to the fact that you might be pulling into a one-way street and help with corrective action if it's needed.
Cranson: Has there been any research that you know of about the use of all the guidance systems. You know whether it's Google Maps or Waze you know when it says turn here and turns out one ramp is right next to the other one and somebody's just following along because you know they're getting audio messages telling them what to do. And that's just one theory I've heard floated. Do you know if that's had any research behind it?
Nelson: Well, I'm not familiar with research on that topic, but I'm very familiar with the challenge that you've outlined. I have a friend who lives in Hawaii, and just a couple weeks ago, he sent me a news clip of a woman who drove into the Bay. Right into the ocean because GPS navigation told her to. That kind of thing just makes me shake my head in disbelief every time and it's a perfect example of how we need to view technology whether it be GPS navigation or advanced driver assist. This technology is complementary, not supplementary to the primary responsibility of driving. We need to be in control of the car, we need to be paying attention, we need to be making smart decisions, and we need to lean on technology to support us in that way, not to take the place of our responsibility.
Cranson: Yeah, I mean, our kids are going to grow up not even knowing how to get any place anymore because they were instructed the entire route, right? Like, I used to have a great memory for phone numbers, but I don't have to remember any phone numbers now, right?
Nelson: It's sort of like what spell check did to all of our abilities to spell properly, you know, technology could have a similar kind of impact on our ability to drive without those supportive technologies.
Cranson: Yeah. So, do you think that with what's been talked about in the bipartisan infrastructure law requiring some kind of sensor or testing before you can drive that could greatly cut into impaired driving?
Nelson: Yeah, the HALT Act, so, I mean this is something that can have a tremendous impact on alcohol, impaired driving and the way that that provision in the infrastructure bill is written, it has to at least address alcohol, but it is written so that it could include impairment generally speaking. So that could include fatigue or being too sleepy to drive. It could include also medical impairments if you're having a heart attack or a seizure that would be covered as well and then impairment due to drugs other than alcohol that obviously can't be detected in the same way that alcohol can using the same kinds of sensors. But there are other forms of driver monitoring technology that can be used to sort of create an algorithm that points to odds are that this individual is having some sort of an impairment, whether it be medical, fatigue or alcohol or drugs, and can force well first alert the driver to the need to pull over safely. But if the driver doesn't respond, the vehicle will slow and pull itself over to a safe location. And so, this has a huge potential to enhance highway safety for all of us and in particular for wrong way driving crashes since alcohol is a factor in 6 out of 10 of those fatal crashes.
Cranson: And as someone who advocates on these issues before Congress and with others and sometimes have to testify. How do you think that debate will go?
Nelson: Congress has required NHTSA to issue a rule on this. There are all kinds of administrative opportunities for them to delay issuing its rulemaking as long as NHTSA files the right paperwork, and I suspect that they will do that. One of the challenges for NHTSA is that what their role is creating a repeatable test that the automakers can use when sort of validating the technology that they built into their cars meeting this particular requirement. And it doesn't have to be the same technology for each automaker. It's just that whatever technology is used to achieve this outcome has to perform appropriately using whatever this repeatable test is. And therein lies the challenge. And this is a problem easier to solve for alcohol than any drug other than alcohol and certainly easier to solve for alcohol than for other forms of impairment like medical or fatigue. And so, my prediction is that the first rule that NHTSA issues, whether it be on time, on schedule or delayed will be relative to alcohol specifically. And then it's our hope that as we learn more and NHTSA is more able to determine the kind of repeatable test required for other forms of impairment that that rule can be updated to capture other forms of driver impairment.
Cranson: And how will Big Brother phobia factor into the opposition?
Nelson: Well, you know, we at AAA do an annual survey through our foundation asking active motorists about their opinion on all kinds of things and on what kinds of risk-taking behaviors they themselves engage in. And on this topic, we've learned that upwards of 70, 75 to 80% depending on the year of motorists in this country actually support making the car the cure and preventing people from being able to start the car if you are impaired by alcohol. And so, I think that we have good public support. I think the challenge is in people need to touch it, feel it, see it and experience it before their comfort will increase, and this is true on all kinds of things related to highway safety. You just think of like the notion of a fully self-driving car. People are very uncomfortable with that but there also isn't a fully self-driving car available for people to engage in right now. You know the most aggressive form of that technology still technically requires that you monitor the driving environment and be prepared to take control at any time. So, I just think it's an exposure issue before public support gets to the point where we don't have the Big Brother fears.
Cranson: Yeah, I think and hope you're right. Jake, thank you very much for taking time to talk about all these things and I know we could go on forever. You guys have so much in your portfolio, but I really appreciate your insights.
Nelson: Yeah, I appreciate you having me on, and I am happy to talk about this stuff anytime. So, take care and I hope to see you soon.
Cranson: I’d like to thank you once more for tuning into Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple Podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who help make this podcast a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball who proofs the content, Courtney Bates who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.