Are Apps to Blame for Rise in Traffic Deaths?

Highway fatalities increased by the largest annual percentage in 50 years in 2015. This happened after decreasing steadily over the last four decades. The numbers look even worse for 2016 — for the first six months of the year highway deaths increased 10.4% compared to the same period of 2015, to 17,775. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which compiles these statistics, is very concerned.

Insurance companies track auto accidents closely. Many leaders in the industry consider the rise in use of electronic devices while driving to be the reason for the increase in traffic deaths. Regulators and manufacturers tend to agree. Car makers have introduced many new features to vehicles in an attempt to keep drivers’ hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. New software allows drivers to place calls, send texts, and use apps hands-free. It is not clear, however, that this technology improves safety at all.

Deborah Hersman, president of the nonprofit National Safety Council, said it was not clear how much these various technologies reduced distraction — or, instead, encouraged people to use even more functions on their phones while driving, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

While the new technology allows drivers to keep their hands and eyes free for the task of driving, it does nothing to keep their mind on the task at hand. Distraction takes place in the brain. When the driver is focused on their phone, even if they aren’t looking at or touching it, their mind is not focused on the road. If a driver takes their focus o the road for only five seconds, traveling at 55 miles per hour, they will cover the length of a football eld without mentally processing what’s happening. The results of this kind of distraction have proven to be deadly.

Some people put their faith in better technology to solve this problem. New ways to integrate apps into the vehicles, or even fully-autonomous vehicles, may help, but the best solution is probably the simplest — putting away our phones while driving.