Despite improvements in automobile technology which even critics acknowledge have made cars the safest they have ever been, traffic fatalities took a dramatic rise last year.
The number of motor vehicle deaths in 2016 totaled 40,200, up 6 percent from 2015, and marked the first time the annual fatality total has exceeded 40,000 since 2007. Those 2016 death numbers are up an alarming 14 percent from the 2014 total.
Illinois saw the same dramatic 6 percent rise in highway deaths, but the two-year total was up by 18 percent, higher than the national average.
“You know I think it’s our complacency on the road that’s killing us,” said Deborah Hersman, president of the Itasca-based National Safety Council which compiled the 2016 numbers. “Vehicle miles traveled last year went up by about 3 percent, but the fatality numbers were double that.”
In 2016, 4.6 million auto-related injuries were reported, up 7 percent from 2015.
The NSC says the estimated cost of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries and property damage was $432.5 billion, an increase of 12 percent from 2015. As bad as those numbers are, perhaps more alarming are the results of an NSC survey of drivers’ habits.
The safety council said 10 percent of drivers surveyed said they have driven after they felt like they were too drunk to be behind the wheel. Of those drivers, 48 percent said they crossed the median, dozed off or drifted onto the shoulder. Fully 43 percent said they were involved in a crash.
Another 75 percent said they are concerned that legalizing marijuana will add to traffic safety problems. But 13 percent said they have driven under the influence of pot in the last month.
Perhaps most alarming, 47 percent said they feel it is safe to send text messages, either manually or with automated voice features.
“What we found that is even more disturbing is that people are willing to use social media,” said Hersman. “Things like Facebook, even FaceTiming behind the wheel, watching videos, things that are going to draw your attention away from the driving task.”
The NSC survey showed that 25 percent of drivers believe it’s OK to speed on residential streets. Nine percent said they would go at least 10 miles per hour over the speed limit in a school zone, where children are getting on and off buses.
“We have got to model the behavior that we want our children to adopt,” Hersman said, “And I think a lot of parents are not setting a great example for their kids.”