Unsafe Driving Leads To Jump In Highway Deaths, Study Finds
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now some troubling news about road safety. Traffic fatalities are way up for the second year in a row. The National Safety Council says more than 40,000 people were killed in traffic accidents last year. That's the most since 2007. NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Many drivers admit they often go above the speed limit. Some occasionally still drive after having too much to drink. And the vast majority of us say, yeah, we use our phones when we drive.
ALEXANDER MUKANDA: Well, I see them all the time.
SCHAPER: Alexander Mukanda says he sees it not just in his fellow Chicago drivers.
MUKANDA: I see people even crossing the road texting and not looking around to see traffic that's coming.
SCHAPER: Distractions like those are among the reasons that traffic fatalities, including those of pedestrians and cycles, rose last year to the highest level in almost a decade. Debbie Hersman heads the National Safety Council.
DEBBIE HERSMAN: Forty thousand people died on our roadways last year. That's a 6 percent increase over 2015 and almost 14 percent increase over the last two years.
SCHAPER: A stronger economy and lower gas prices are putting more drivers on the road. But that alone doesn't account for the rise. This two-year jump in fatalities is the largest in more than 50 years. And Hersman says it comes after significant improvements in safety features built into cars.
HERSMAN: But what has not changed is our human fallibility.
SCHAPER: Hersman says 94 percent of fatal crashes are caused by human error - 94 percent. And it's essentially the same things that have been killing people for decades.
HERSMAN: The top three killers are speed, alcohol and distraction, and yet there is no public commitment to changing behaviors on these issues.
SCHAPER: The council released results of a survey in which a majority of drivers admit to speeding or using phones while driving, and 10 percent admitted to driving drunk. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety also released a report today showing more than 70 percent of drivers admit to speeding, running a red light or reading or sending a text or an email while behind the wheel. The worst behaved drivers are young adults. Eighty-eight percent of those ages 19 to 24 admit to taking those risks while driving.
David Vergara of Chicago says he sees it every day - drivers who are looking at their phones and not at the road ahead of them, and he's among them.
DAVID VERGARA: I will admit I do that, as well. Especially when I'm at a red light, I'll look down at my phone. Or if I get a text while I'm driving, sometimes I'll grab it.
SCHAPER: The independent contractor says he is trying to resist the urge to check his phone while driving.
VERGARA: Unless you're confronted personally into a situation where you know somebody who's been directly affected, I don't think that's going to click for a lot of people.
SCHAPER: Safety advocates agree. And they say until drivers behaviors begin to change for the better, highway fatalities may continue to rise. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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