Name: Artem Khaiet
From: Mount Prospect, Illinois
From Apps to Automatic Braking: Technology To Make Roads Safer
Americans are always on the road. Our country’s size, culture, and urban design means that most of us inevitably use our cars to go to school, work, restaurants, grocery stores, and pretty much everywhere else. In fact, 87% of Americans aged 16 and older drive a car at least once a year, and on average, drivers spend more than 12 full days behind the wheel annually (WANADA). That is a lot of driving. Predictably, this results in numerous car accidents, due to which tens of thousands of people die every year (IIHS). But a lot of these deaths are preventable. Driving-related fatalities have been steadily declining in the past 50 years due to education and safety improvements, and there are further steps we can take today to keep reducing these numbers.
A major way to enhance road safety is technology. Historically, new inventions such as airbags, seatbelts, or booster car seats emerged, made their way into the mainstream, revolutionized the automobile industry, and significantly improved road safety. This process is far from over. Technology continues to progress and we keep seeing it reduce fatalities. But the progress is slow and it has been a while since an innovation led to a complete transformation of the automobile industry. That is why the local and federal government needs to promote this kind of technology, and driver’s education courses should make people more aware of them.
For instance, distracted driving is a serious problem, especially among teens, claiming over 3,000 lives in 2020 (NHTSA). Many keep texting and driving despite knowing the risks, so awareness campaigns warning about the dangers of distracted driving have little impact. However, the answer may lie in technology – specifically, software that locks your phone when you are driving. There are apps that can either be turned on manually or automatically detect when you are going above a certain speed, turn off notifications, and only allow you to access navigation or music programs. These apps remove the temptation to glance over to read a new text, but few drivers are aware of them. So in addition to spreading awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, we could also make people aware of ways to resist the urge to do it, for instance by teaching kids how to use these apps in driver’s ed classes or by advertising them on billboards. Governments and insurance companies could even encourage drivers to use these applications by paying small amounts of money for utilizing them, slightly reducing premiums, offering other incentives, or even mandating them for certain age groups.
The notification-blocking apps are just one example. There is also software to warn people when they significantly exceed the speed limit. Such apps could have helped my own family had we known about them sooner. A couple of years ago, we were on a road trip and my dad was driving twenty miles per hour above the speed limit. By that point, we had been driving for a long time, the highway was smooth and empty, and everyone was tired, so no one noticed. Thankfully, we did not get into an accident, but we easily could have. We only managed to notice how fast we were going when we got pulled over by a police officer and received a ticket. This sort of accidental speeding, without any malicious intent, regularly causes a lot of deaths and damage, and it could be prevented by a simple app that alerts people if they are exceeding the speed limit. These apps already exist, and they could be combined with the aforementioned phone-locking apps to increase their combined effect. After that, it is a matter of marketing and getting people to use them, which governments, nonprofits, and insurance companies can contribute to with awareness campaigns and incentives.
Another type of app that could be widely adapted to reduce traffic fatalities is RAPT, or Risk Awareness and Perception Training. It is a computer program, almost a game, where driver’s education students are asked to click on the areas of the screen where they think they should be looking and the software corrects them if they pick the wrong ones. It is simple but effective: studies have shown a decline in crash rates as high as 24% after using the software (Sabatini). Driver’s education has been shown to be at least somewhat effective at making students safer (Akbari et al). But amid consistent findings that driver’s ed has little systemic impact on reducing crashes, skepticism about the precise effectiveness of requiring driver’s ed classes has been growing, many state governments have been cutting the classes’ budgets or removing the requirement to pass them altogether, and many people now prefer to learn on their own. Driver’s education obviously has potential, but the frequently ineffective teaching methods are holding it back. Introducing software such as RAPT, among other innovative promising technologies, to the curriculum can help address skeptics’ concerns, make driver’s education more practical and popular, revitalize government interest in requiring driver’s ed classes, and, most importantly, reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities.
Of course, software is not the only kind of technology that can make roads safer. In recent years, we have made many improvements to road infrastructure, such as rumble strips to alert inattentive drivers of potential danger with vibrations, bike lanes to prevent accidents, roundabouts to make intersections safer, backplates on traffic signals to improve their visibility, raised medians to make it easier for pedestrians to cross the road, or centered turn lanes and other aspects of “road diets” to significantly reduce crashes. Investing in this new technology, as well as in repairs and maintenance of traditional infrastructure like traffic signs and road markings, can help decrease the number of driving-related deaths.
The final type of technology that can improve safety is changes to cars themselves. Historically, these have been most effective. Modern-day driver assistance technologies have made driving much easier and notably reduced the number of human-error-related accidents. For instance, forward collision and rear cross warnings alert drivers of imminent collisions, lane departure warning and lane centering assistance help the driver stay in their lane, blind sport warning notifies drivers of vehicles they cannot directly see, adaptive cruise control maintains a constant distance behind another vehicle, intelligent speed assistance helps (and occasionally even forces) drivers to stay within the speed limit, ignition interlocks prevent one from starting the car if they are intoxicated, automatic headlights or high beams improve visibility in case a driver has forgotten to manually turn them on or off, backup cameras make it easier to see what is behind the car, automatic braking can directly prevent the collision in case any of the above warnings are ignored or precautions fail, and automatic crash notifications immediately send the location of a major crash to emergency responders, which can be a lifesaver when every second counts. Each of these features has a different level of effectiveness, cost, and prevalence: some are cheap, proven, and already in almost every car or even required in certain jurisdictions, others are relatively experimental, rare, and potentially expensive. But as time goes by, these features will only become cheaper, more widely available and more time-tested and researched. Gradually, we should start mandating the most reliable and effective features, such as automatic braking, on all new car models. We have already done so with seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock braking systems, and other safety technologies that helped significantly reduce driving fatalities. As newer technologies appear, it is our duty to implement them and take advantage of their life saving potential.
Transportation is a pillar of American life. So is ingenuity and innovation. These pillars can be combined, as they have been before, to save thousands of lives every year. There will never be a complete solution to the problem of car accidents, but we can work towards minimizing their harm. The best way to do so is the creativity and efficiency of individuals and businesses combined with the power of local, state, and federal governments, which will result in the adoption of new effective technology. Be it phone apps, innovative teaching methods, road improvements, or new tech in cars themselves, they all have one thing in common: saving lives of people on the roads.
However, it is important to remember that technology, legislation, education, and other systemic changes, even though they go a long way, are not everything. At the end of the day, no government institution, organization, or company, no matter what policies and ideas they introduce, can completely prevent lethal car accidents. A lot is up to individual drivers. There are simple rules that one can choose to follow to prevent themselves or others from being endangered. Every time I sit behind the wheel, I choose not to drink alcohol or use other drugs, not to get distracted by my phone, passengers, or anything else, to follow the law and pay careful attention to traffic signs – particularly speed limits – and to wear a seatbelt. I have little control over government policies and the invention of new technologies. But I do have a lot of control over my own life and I know that the above personal choices will make my driving experience significantly safer, so I decide to make these choices. Will you?
Akbari, Maryam et al. “Is driver education contributing towards road safety? a systematic review of systematic reviews.” Journal of injury & violence research vol. 13,1 (2021): 69-80. doi:10.5249/jivr.v13i1.1592
IIHS. “Yearly snapshot.” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, May 2022, https://www.iihs.org/topics/fatality-statistics/detail/yearly-snapshot. Accessed 26 July 2022.
NHTSA. “Distracted Driving Dangers and Statistics.” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving. Accessed 26 July 2022.
Sabatini, Jeff. “Does Driver Education Make Our Roads Safer? – Feature –.” Car and Driver, 12 April 2016, https://www.caranddriver.com/features/a15101313/does-driver-education-make-our-roads-safer-feature/. Accessed 26 July 2022.
WANADA. “U.S. drivers spend average 17600 minutes driving each year – WANADA.” Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, 13 September 2016, https://wanada.org/u-s-drivers-spend-average-17600-minutes-driving-each-year/. Accessed 26 July 2022.