Zero Traffic Fatalities: A Goal That Seems Increasingly Distant

Here are some reasons why road deaths have been on the rise in California.

PUBLISHED SEP 16, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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California traffic deaths remain high, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

California traffic deaths remain high, but it doesn’t have to be that way.   Mikele Dray / Shutterstock   Shutterstock License

California is desperately struggling to make its objective of “zero traffic fatalities” on the state’s streets and highways come into view somewhere on the horizon, much less become a reality, despite passing legislation stating that objective in 2018.

In the first three months of 2022, 944 people perished in California traffic incidents. That first-quarter total was actually down about 7 percent from the same three months of 2021, when 1,018 people died on the roads. But while California may be trending at least somewhat downward after two straight years of increases, the death toll remains brutally high. In the three full years that the state’s zero traffic fatalities goal has been in effect, 3,606 died in 2019, followed by 3,847 in 2020 and 4,258 in 2021, according to NHTSA statistics.

Despite the state convening a “Zero Fatalities” task force which came up with a series of “countermeasures” to combat traffic deaths, and 11 major cities adopting a “Vision Zero” policy with the objective of eliminating traffic deaths, the carnage continues to mount. What causes the ongoing traffic bloodshed?

The answers, not surprisingly, are complex. Here are a few factors, some of them not too surprising, that appear to be contributors to the continuing crisis that claims an average of more than 10 lives per day on California roads. All of these factors can be reduced or even eliminated.

Speed Kills

Speeding—driving faster than the posted speed limit, or too fast for road or weather conditions—is a factor in about 25 percent of all traffic deaths in the United States recorded since 2008, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stats. In California the percentage is similar. A report by the state Office of Traffic Safety showed 1,056 people killed in 2016 due to speed-related incidents. That was 29.1 percent of all people killed on the roads that year.

Speed limits are generally set using the “85th Percentile” rule. When a local government wants to set a new speed limit it must commission an often costly traffic engineering study to determine speeds at which vehicles travel through the area in question. The speed at which 85 percent of drivers move becomes the speed limit.

But according to the Zero Fatalities Task Force report, allowing governments to bypass the rule results in safer streets. Instead, the report advocates an approach referred to as “Safe Systems,” which “begin with the premise that the human body is vulnerable and unlikely to survive impact speeds more than 40 mph,” rather than allowing driver behavior to set the standard for determining speed limits. 

California passed legislation in 2021 to allow cities to drop local speed limits by 5 mph, and to set limits of 20 or 25 mph in business districts

Alcohol and Drugs Also Kill

Alcohol-involved incidents remain predictably among the most reliable killers on both California and America’s roads. Across the country, based on NHTSA numbers from 2019, alcohol-impaired drivers kill about 32 people every day—one death every 45 minutes. As the NHTSA points out, every one of these deaths is preventable. If drunk driving were eliminated none of those people would be killed.

But how to do that? The prevalence of alcohol-impaired driving despite it being a crime in all 50 states and the District of Columbia (though the toughness of drunk driving laws varies widely among states) would seem to indicate that law enforcement misses a lot of offenses. Statistics seem to bear that out. According to numbers compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the average drunk driver has already driven under the influence 80 times before being arrested once.

Drunk driving fatalities in California run slightly above the national average. According to stats from 2016 compiled by the Office of Traffic Safety, 1,059 people died in incidents involving a driver with a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit of 0.08, or 29.2 percent of all traffic deaths that year. The national average was 28 percent.

But alcohol is not the only substance that causes traffic deaths. According to the 2016 OTS stats, drugs that are not alcohol—including cannabis, prescription drugs and other substances—were responsible for 16.2 percent of all traffic deaths nationwide. In California that year, 352 people died in traffic incidents involving cannabis or other drugs, or 9.7 percent of all road deaths.

Keep Your Eyes on the Road!

It’s probably the number one instruction that every driver’s ed teacher repeats to students—watch the road. Simply paying attention to driving could save thousands of lives per year. According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control, in 2019 more than 3,100 people were killed in traffic incidents caused by distracted drivers. The number was about the same in 2020: 3,142 according to the NHTSA, slightly less than 9 percent of all traffic deaths.

“Distracted” driving is defined by the CDC as taking your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel, or just letting your mind wander away from the task at hand, which is operating your vehicle safely. Distracted driving increases the chance of a collision by a factor of three.

“Sending a text message, talking on a cell phone, using a navigation system, and eating while driving are a few examples of distracted driving,” according to the CDC. “Any of these distractions can endanger you, your passengers, and others on the road.”

Approximately 20 percent—one of every five—people killed by distracted drivers, according to the 2019 stats, were not even in a vehicle. They were mostly pedestrians or bicyclists.

“Texting is the most alarming distraction,” according to the NHTSA. “Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that's like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”

The Pandemic Made People Crazy

Traffic deaths rose during the COVID-19 pandemic years of 2019 and 2020, which led to a popular theory that the psychological ramifications of living through a global health emergency, replete with school closings, business shutdowns, mask mandates and other public health measures simply drove people to drive more dangerously.

One of the most prominent proponents of this theory has been New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, who wrote that “the mental health problems caused by Covid’s isolation and disruption” are in his opinion the most likely suspects behind the increase in traffic deaths. “Many Americans have felt frustrated or unhappy, and it seems to have affected their driving,” Leonhardt wrote.

Leonhardt rejects a simpler theory, however—that the more open roads caused by decreases in overall driving during the pandemic led the people who did get on the roads to speed. A meta-analysis of dozens of statistical studies from the U.S. and around the world, published in the World Journal of Emergency Surgery found that traffic collisions decreased in most countries. Only the U.S., Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands suffered increases.

But even in countries where traffic collisions decreased, crashes involving extreme speeds spiked. In Spain, speed-related collisions increased by five times, and by three in the United Kingdom, according to the meta-study.

A study of California driving during the pandemic, conducted at the University of Colorado, made similar findings.

“The ‘speed effect’ is the increase in traffic fatalities due to higher average traffic speeds,” the study’s lead author, traffic expert Jonathan Hughes, told Bloomberg News. “With many drivers staying home during the early Covid-19 period, the decrease in traffic allowed remaining drivers to drive faster, meaning that the crashes that did happen were more severe because they happened at higher speeds.”

The study also found that the “speed effect” was worst in California counties that had the most traffic congestion before the pandemic hit, indicating that drivers in those areas were able to increase speeds more than in other counties.

But even Hughes acknowledged that psychological factors related to the pandemic may have also played a role in the higher death numbers, saying he found “some evidence” of increased risky behavior by drivers, specifically by male drivers. 

But overall, “the main effect on fatalities seems to come from higher average speeds for all drivers.”

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