In a recent New York Times article, writer Matthew Shaer discussed the dangers of roads in the United States. From 2020 to 2021, the United States experienced a significant increase in car crashes, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reporting a 16 percent surge, totaling more than six million crashes, or approximately 16,500 wrecks per day. The fatality statistics for 2021 were particularly alarming, reaching 42,939 deaths in car crashes, marking the highest toll in a decade and a half.
In search of discovering the causes behind this surge, Shaer delves into the societal shifts that have occurred in recent years, including increased stress from the pandemic as well as the political atmosphere, to more people buying large vehicles such as SUVs and pick-up trucks, to phones becoming increasingly more distracting to more drivers.
What are the causes?
The New York Times reported that the recent uptick in car accidents in America is intricately connected to a combination of social, health, and behavioral factors. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly influenced driving patterns and behaviors. The surge in remote work and lockdowns altered commuting routines, leading to periods of reduced traffic and open roads. Paradoxically, this shift in driving conditions seems to have fueled more reckless behavior, with instances of speeding and dangerous driving increasing. The open roads, coupled with a sense of anonymity behind the wheel, contributed to a surge in activities like illegal street racing. Past having open roads, how is Covid partially to blame for this spike in car accidents? Shaer spoke to an expert on the matter:
“Drivers were frustrated,” says Kuhls, now a professor of surgery at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at U.N.L.V. and chief of trauma at an affiliated public hospital. “My own theory is that whatever personal conflicts they had were exacerbated because they’d been sheltering in place during Covid. So they’d get on the road having self-medicated with drugs or alcohol, or they’d just be incredibly reckless.”
With increased stress and anger comes increased instances of road rage. Stress and frustrations in modern life contribute to aggressive reactions on the road, where individuals may feel less accountable for their actions. A study led by Amanda Stephens at Monash University found that during the summer of 2022, most drivers experienced increased hostility on the roads compared to pre-pandemic times. The survey revealed that nearly 80 percent of respondents reported a rise in behaviors such as “shouting, cursing, or making rude gestures,” and about 35 percent reported an increase in incidents where one driver attempts to cause “actual damage” to another vehicle. Similar findings were reflected in a 2020 survey by the insurance-comparison website The Zebra, where 82 percent of participants reported engaging in road rage or aggressive driving, with five percent admitting to purposeful bumping or ramming of another vehicle.
Social dynamics, especially among younger drivers, have played a role in the rising accident rates. Young drivers, who historically engage in riskier behaviors, account for a significant portion of fatal crashes. Economic considerations, such as the affordability of vehicles with advanced safety features, have led to a trade-off for many young drivers, who often choose vehicles with powerful engines over comprehensive safety options. The combination of these factors creates an environment where both distracted driving and an increase in dangerous behaviors contribute to the growing number of accidents.
Distracted driving, amplified by the widespread use of smartphones and other electronic devices, also remains a persistent issue. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s surveys reveal alarming statistics, with a considerable percentage of drivers admitting to engaging in risky behaviors such as using phones while driving. Shaer put it succinctly when he wrote “take the bad behavior and add the perils of distraction by smartphone — responsible, by one conservative estimate, for about 3,500 deaths annually — and you’re left with what Emily Schweninger, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Transportation, described to me as a ‘genuine public-health crisis’ on the level of cancer, suicide and heart disease.”
Why are injuries worse in today’s car accidents?
While modern cars are sturdier and less prone to spontaneous explosions, they have become taller and heavier, with the average full-size SUV now weighing around 5,000 pounds. The article notes the “truckification of the family car,” with pickup trucks gaining an average of 1,300 pounds since 1990.
The relationship between car size and injury rates is a subject of ongoing research. Early findings suggest that larger vehicles, such as SUVs with hood heights exceeding 40 inches, pose increased risks to pedestrians. A report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in November 2023 indicates that such vehicles are 45 percent more likely to cause fatalities in pedestrian accidents compared to smaller cars. When a pedestrian is struck by a car with a hood of 40 inches or higher, it is more likely that the victim will sustain injuries to the torso and head, instead of less fatal injuries to the legs.
What’s being done to reduce car accidents in the U.S.?
Efforts to decrease car accidents in the United States involve a multifaceted approach encompassing various strategies and initiatives. One key focus is enhancing road safety through improved infrastructure and design. The Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program, spearheaded by the Department of Transportation and funded with over $5 billion, aims to address road-safety issues in cities and municipalities. This includes projects such as widening shoulders, adding rumble strips, and creating protected sidewalks and bike lanes.
Additionally, there is a growing recognition of the importance of technology in promoting road safety. Automated safety technology, including features that assist in collision prevention and driver monitoring, is expected to become more widespread and affordable across different types of vehicles. However, the adoption of such technology faces challenges due to concerns about privacy, civil liberties, and potential disparities in its impact on communities.
Law enforcement plays a crucial role in reducing accidents through stronger enforcement measures. Some states have seen success by focusing on behaviors that contribute to accidents, such as speeding, seatbelt violations, impairment, and distraction. Increased monitoring of fast roads, busy intersections, and dedicated enforcement on high-traffic days has contributed to a significant drop in fatalities.
Some states and jurisdictions have embraced cameras to capture images of speeding vehicles, enforce speed limits, and issue fines. The effectiveness of speed cameras is evident in countries like France, where their implementation led to a significant reduction in speeding and related fatalities. In the United States, however, the adoption of speed cameras faces challenges, with eight states taking measures to outlaw them. The debate revolves around concerns about privacy, civil liberties, and potential disproportionate impacts on certain communities. Critics argue against automated enforcement, citing potential unfair targeting, while proponents emphasize the positive impact on road safety.
Until we figure out the best ways to make our roads safer, with the current increased rate of car accidents, it is increasingly likely that you may find yourself in one if you haven’t already. When that happens, it is important to seek out the help of an experienced car accident attorney in Huntsville or Decatur. Martin & Helms has helped countless clients who were injured in car crashes. Whether it was caused by someone’s recklessness, the result of another driver’s road rage, or their simple negligence, you deserve compensation for your injuries. To set up a free consultation, call our offices in Huntsville or Decatur, or use our contact page. We want to help. We serve clients in Madison, Athens, and all of North Alabama.