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'Zero Fatalities' on The Highways Coming in Our Lifetime?

The automobile may be on the cusp of a 'significant turning point.'
Industry experts believe automobiles are at a crucial turning point on the way to near-zero highway fatalities.
Industry experts believe automobiles are at a crucial turning point on the way to near-zero highway fatalities.REBECCA BREYER / EPA
/ Source: The Detroit Bureau

The heavy weekend snowstorm that crippled much of the Midwest U.S. led to scores of accidents –- including a 40-car pile-up near Chicago -- and a number of fatalities. Inevitable? Not necessarily.

Federal data, backed by a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, show that there’s been a sharp and accelerating decline in U.S. highway deaths. A variety of factors are getting credit, including better road designs, a crackdown on drunk driving, and improved vehicle designs using the latest in passive and active safety systems.

“We now have ways to prevent crashes in the first place,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “And there are ways to design those vehicles to prevent those injuries when crashes do occur.”

Since reaching their 54,589 peak in 1972, U.S. highway deaths have fallen 40 percent. For 2013, the latest year for which data are available, the total number of fatalities slipped to 32,719, down from 33,782 in 2012. Even those numbers underplay the improvement. In 1964, there were 5.39 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled, or VMTs. That dipped to just 1.10 in 2013, the lowest figure ever recorded.

“With the help of policy-makers providing clear regulatory oversight, (new) technologies could lead to ‘zero fatality’ roads within our lifetimes.”

That’s still a long way from zero, but industry leaders have begun to suggest what was once unimaginable is now growing quite possible.

Significant turning point

“Today, the automobile finds itself at a significant turning point,” Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn wrote in an op-ed for the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “With the help of policymakers providing clear regulatory oversight, (new) technologies could lead to ‘zero fatality’ roads within our lifetimes.”

Volvo has also set a zero-death goal for new models it plans to produce starting in 2020. To reach that goal it last year opened the appropriately named AstaZero safety program grounds near its headquarters in Western Sweden.

A look at federal data shows that the big drop in the death toll has come over the last decade and appears to coincide with several key factors. The crackdown on drunk driving, once blamed for as many as a third of all U.S. highway deaths, has clearly helped. But arguably even more important has been a revolution in vehicle design, experts contend.

Crash test results from both the IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal that the latest vehicles are simply better able to absorb the forces of an impact and channel them around and away from occupants.

IIHS President Lund also points to 2008, when new federal rules made standard a feature called "electronic stability control." Commonly referred to as ESC, it is designed to keep drivers in control under conditions where they might otherwise spin out or experience a rollover, a major cause of light truck fatalities.

Between 2007, just before the new mandate took effect, and 2013, highway fatalities fell 20 percent, and that is expected to continue declining as older vehicles are replaced with new models equipped with ESC.

Stability control is considered a key reason why a record nine specific models, such as the Honda Odyssey minivan, experienced no deaths whatsoever between 2009 and 2012, according to the new IIHS study. The average vehicle in the study was linked to 28 deaths, down from 48 three years earlier, and 87 a decade before.

More advanced technologies

Even more advanced technologies are being introduced every year. Forward collision warning systems have already shown a sharp reduction in rear-end crashes, and new versions can bring a car to a stop if a driver’s attention is distracted. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class can automatically brake if it recognizes another vehicle running a red light.

The federal government is about to begin testing a smart roadway communications system that will alert motorists to crashes, bad weather and construction on 100 miles of highway in Metro Detroit. Similar vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems may soon be mandated, just like electronic stability control.

And proponents contend that the semi and fully-autonomous vehicles set to begin rolling out over the next decade could yield even greater improvements in safety than technologies now on the road.

IIHS chief Lund is cautious about overstating the potential benefits. He and other experts admit it would be all but impossible to prevent all unforeseen disasters. There are also the technical glitches, such as the General Motors ignition switch problem now linked to 51 deaths, as well as the Takata airbag issue that has led to the recall of over 10 million vehicles, and which has so far been connected to as many as five deaths.

Mark Rosekind, the new administrator of the National Highway Safety Administration, told a Senate committee considering his nomination that the agency must be “the enforcer” to prevent such safety lapses.

“True zero, I don’t think we’ll ever see, but we’re going to get close to it,” said Lund. “I would be amazed if we don’t see a further decline in the death rate, perhaps a significant one,” when IIHS conducts its next study of vehicle safety.

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