Rising Numbers Of Traffic Fatalities Require Technology Solutions And Prevention Measures Last year, Americans logged more than 3.1 trillion miles and 35,092 people died on the nation's roadways. Now, there's a plan to eliminate traffic fatalities within 30 years.

Human Errors Drive Growing Death Toll In Auto Crashes

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're also tracking some news that begins with a troubling statistic. Almost 18,000 people died in the first six months of this year on America's roadways. That is a sharp increase over previous years. It's happening, even though cars are supposedly being built to be safer. So the government is teaming up with safety advocates, highway designers and others to try to reduce traffic fatalities to zero within 30 years. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Just after 2:30 in the morning on May 5 of this year, 22-year-old Stephanie Kostenko was walking along the side of U.S. Highway 12 here near the town of Volo in Chicago's far northwest suburbs when she was hit from behind by a Ford Mustang and killed.

CHRIS COVELLI: This 23-year-old man indicated he was traveling between 65 and 70 miles an hour.

SCHAPER: Lake County Sheriff's Detective Chris Covelli says in addition to speeding, the man had been drinking and smoking weed.

COVELLI: So we had three separate things here playing a factor. We had excessive speed. We had cannabis in this 23-year-old's system. And we had alcohol in the 23-year-old's system.

SCHAPER: And Covelli says all three of the contributing factors to this crash are completely preventable.

COVELLI: One of the hardest things we ever have to do is go knock on a door at 2 or 3, 4 o'clock in the morning and tell somebody that their loved one has died as a result of a tragic crash, especially when it's a crash that could have been prevented by not drinking, prevented by not using the cell phone, prevented by not consuming alcohol.

SCHAPER: Yet, traffic fatalities from preventable causes are on the rise all across the country. Mark Rosekind of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says in the first six months of this year, traffic fatalities, including those involving pedestrians and bicyclists, are up 10.4 percent. That's after a 7 percent increase in roadway deaths last year. And Rosekind notes that this is happening at a time when airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control and other new technologies are making our vehicles much safer.

MARK ROSEKIND: Ninety-four percent of crashes can be tied back to a human choice or error - 94 percent. Those are the decisions like drinking and driving, speeding or distraction behind the wheel.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: We are in the midst of a public health crisis, and it isn't Zika.

SCHAPER: Debbie Hersman of the National Safety Council says more than 100 people die on our highways every day. That's the equivalent of two regional jets, 14 planes each week, crashing and killing everyone on board.

HERSMAN: If we had 14 plane crashes a week, our hair would be on fire, and no one would set foot on an airplane. Why do we accept the fatalities that occur on our roadways?

SCHAPER: So the nonprofit National Safety Council and the federal government are working with car and truck manufacturers on new vehicle safety features, like automatic emergency braking, and with engineers on safer road designs. But Mark Rosekind says the biggest challenge is changing human behavior. New technologies will be able to override some mistakes people make but not all.

ROSEKIND: The technology enthusiasm is just because that's a new tool. It's not an answer, either. It's just a new tool for us to use. And as much as people talk about fully autonomous drivers, we've got to do stuff now.

SCHAPER: Because safer, self-driving cars and trucks are still likely a ways off.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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