The real Amer­i­can carnage is on the na­tion’s high­ways

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS | OPINION -

Even as cars have be­come safer and smarter than at any time in Amer­i­can his­tory, traf­fic deaths have spiked in the past two years, re­vers­ing a gen­eral de­cline go­ing back nearly a decade. Last year, 40,200 peo­ple died on the na­tion’s roads, up about 14% from two years ear­lier.

The rea­sons are com­plex, some of them un­avoid­able. Eco­nomic re­cov­ery spurs more recre­ational driv­ing that’s riskier as peo­ple go out on week­ends and on va­ca­tion, driv­ing on un­fa­mil­iar roads. More teenagers, who couldn’t af­ford to drive dur­ing the re­ces­sion, are back be­hind the wheel.

Other causes are clearly avoid­able. In the past three years, 13 states have raised their speed lim­its to 70 miles per hour and even 75 on some por­tion of their in­ter­states. Even be­fore this lat­est round of in­creases, re­searchers found that each 5 mph in­crease in the max­i­mum speed limit pro­duces an 8% in­crease in fa­tal­i­ties on free­ways.

Per­haps the most alarm­ing fac­tor is driv­ers who just can’t wait to send or re­ceive emails or texts. Take a na­tion with 228 mil­lion smartphones and 264 mil­lion ve­hi­cles, and you have a toxic mix.

In a sur­vey last year by the AAA Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safety, 40% of driv­ers re­ported hav­ing read a text or an email while driv­ing, and nearly a third re­ported typ­ing one.

More bad news: Not only does this en­dan­ger ev­ery­body on the road, but ev­ery­body is pay­ing more for in­surance be­cause of the fool­ish driv­ers who do it. Ac­cord­ing to the in­dus­try, the rise in wrecks is forc­ing an in­crease in rates, up 16% since 2011.

What to do? The so­lu­tions range from stricter en­force­ment to tar­geted tech­nol­ogy.

Ex­per­i­ments in high-vis­i­bil­ity po­lice en­force­ment, twinned with pub­lic ser­vice cam­paigns, showed promis­ing re­sults in Hart­ford, Conn., and Syra­cuse, N.Y.

All but four states — Ari­zona, Mis­souri, Mon­tana and Texas — ban tex­ting while driv­ing for all driv­ers. In Texas, where leg­isla- tors have de­feated pro­posed bans twice and for­mer gov­er­nor Rick Perry ve­toed one in 2011, law­mak­ers plan to try again this year.

Op­po­nents ar­gue that there are enough laws to stop haz­ardous driv­ing, and they see an­ti­tex­ting laws as the long arm of gov­ern­ment reach­ing into peo­ple’s per­sonal ve­hi­cles. That ar­gu­ment might make more sense if dis­tracted driv­ers didn’t also kill in­no­cent driv­ers and pas­sen­gers.

So­lu­tions will have to be found be­yond new laws.

Just as pub­lic opin­ion has made drunken driv­ing so­cially un­ac­cept­able, help­ing to cut deaths by more than half since 1980, pub­lic opin­ion could make tex­ting and driv­ing un­de­sir­able, too. Al­ready, nearly 80% of driv­ers say tex­ting or email­ing while driv­ing “is com­pletely un­ac­cept­able.”

Per­haps the best way to deal with a tech­nol­ogy-caused prob­lem is with tech­nol­ogy-driven so­lu­tions. Self-driv­ing cars, of course, would al­low peo­ple to text as they please, but the na­tion faces a lengthy “how safe is safe enough” de­bate about th­ese ve­hi­cles.

Shorter term, apps and de­vices al­ready ex­ist that can block calls (ex­cept to 911) or texts while a car is in mo­tion. In­stead of rais­ing rates across the board, in­sur­ers could of­fer dis­counts for driv­ers who use th­ese apps and de­vices.

VERON­ICA BRAVO, USA TO­DAY

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