After decades of declining fatality rates, dangerous driving has surged again

Examine a chart of year-over-year car fatalities in the United States, and you’ll encounter two significant spikes — three, counting the one we are living through today. The first arrived in the earliest decades of the 20th century, as cities were overrun by hordes of untrained drivers; the second hit at the midcentury mark, with the creation of the freeway system and the introduction of powerful new vehicles like the Ford Mustang. In 1966 alone, the traffic death toll hit 50,894, more than the number of American troops killed in combat during the entire Vietnam War.

As early as the 1950s, doctors, activists and journalists had tried to raise concerns about the rising violence on American roads. Among them was Fletcher Woodward, a mild-mannered physician who toured the country ceaselessly, carting along a movie that depicted, in nausea-inducing detail, the effect car crashes had on an unprotected human body. (“When the automobile death rate ranks next to our main killers … it is indeed time to answer Cain’s query and say: ‘Yes. I am my brother’s keeper,’” Woodward warned in 1957.) Few people paid much attention. It was the “golden age” of the Detroit auto industry and the heyday of American car culture — the era of drive-in movie theaters and drive-through restaurants. By 1958, 79 million cars had been registered in the United States, up from 40 million in 1950. “Popular acceptance and a ‘hands-off’ attitude by governments — state, local and federal — prevailed,” Michael Lemov, the former chief counsel of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House of Representatives, later wrote.

The tipping point came in part with a pair of best-selling books: “Unsafe at Any Speed,” by the crusading young lawyer Ralph Nader, and “Safety Last,” a deftly reported exposé by Jeffrey O’Connell and Arthur Myers, which concluded that executives in the auto industry, collectively, “simply don’t feel there’s any money in safety.”


I’m quite sure this one is “distracted driving”. For the first two waves there were serious government efforts to make driving safer: stop lights, widening curves, speed limits during the first, and improvements in highway design, guard rails and the like for the second.

For this one? No way to do anything about it except make texting and screens inaccessible while a vehicle is in motion, and that’s never gonna happen.


Could happen by creating a legal presumption of guilt for any driver to have a cell phone with active communications while driving?

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Another factor in fatalities is speeding.

As speed goes up, the likelihood of a crash being fatal goes up.

If you look at the second page of this report there is a graph that shows just how deadly speeding can be:

And these days, with our modern, well-engineered vehicles, there is a temptation by many to go as fast as they can. And we all know that most people will drive a certain amount over posted speeds knowing that they will almost certainly not be ticketed unless they are 10mph over the limit.

In Utah, where I live, the interstates are posted with 80mph speed limits. If I’m going 80, I get passed constantly by people going 90 and often faster (I used to do speed enforcement and have a pretty good idea of relative speeds). If you crash going 100 your chances of dying are very high.

But I agree that distracted driving is a serious problem. It used to be that when I saw a vehicle swerving onto the shoulder or over the center line repeatedly I thought it had to be a drunk, now it seems more likely to be some idiot texting.


And yet some victories prove more enduring than others. In 1966, at least, politicians were faced with an issue that could be comprehensively addressed by legislation: Vehicles were death traps because manufacturers had little incentive to make them otherwise. Our current predicament is considerably more complex. New cars are stronger and less prone to spontaneously exploding, but they’re also taller and heavier — pickup trucks have added an average of 1,300 pounds of curb weight since 1990, while the average full-size S.U.V. now weighs around 5,000 pounds, at least a thousand pounds more than the midcentury sedan. (Angie Schmitt, a transportation writer and planner, has called this the “truckification of the family car.”) In 1967, Chevrolet made headlines with its sleek new Corvette Stingray, which leaped to 60 miles per hour in 4.7 seconds; in 2023, dozens of midmarket sports cars and sedans can match or beat that time, and the Tesla Model S Plaid, with its stock “drag strip” mode, trounces it by a full 2.6 seconds.

The relationship between car size and injury rates is still being studied, but early research on the American appetite for horizon-blotting machinery points in precisely the direction you’d expect: The bigger the vehicle, the less visibility it affords, and the more destruction it can wreak. In a report published in November, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit, concluded that S.U.V.s or vans with a hood height greater than 40 inches — standard-issue specs for an American truck in 2023 — are 45 percent more likely to kill pedestrians than smaller cars.

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I agree with your statments abput speed.
I think your interstate should not have a postted speed limit of 80 mph. Human nature to drive 40 in 35 mph zone, 50 in 45 mph zone, 65 in 55 mph zone, 75 in a 65 mph zone, and 90 in a 80 mph zone.

We need more highway and city patrols to make traffic stops for speeding. I think radar or lidar could also be used for slowing down the traffic by issuing hefty penalties for speeding.

About a decade ago, I was driving through Phoenix on I-17, normally a madhouse of speeding and reckless driving. It struck me that traffic was moving at a very reasonable speed and there was much less of the mad lane changing idiocy going on. Well, the state of AZ had installed a whole bunch of cameras for the purpose of speed enforcement and lo and behold, the driving got much safer. Sadly it did not last long. Too invasive. It could save lives and god knows how much property damage, but no…


Phone manufacturers can be held liable for damages. Then it will happen. Where are the lawyers? Waiting for a client.

Just like Ralph Nader challenged Chevy over seatbelts. If you do not make driving safe you are liable. We have idiot proofed the rest of our country.

It has always been against to drive while drunk. But it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the US society really got tough on drunk drivers.

The legalization of marijuana seems be linked to increase traffic deaths. Are there now standards that apply to the level incapacitation of drivers under the influence of marijuana? Will a anti-smoking while driving campaign similar to anti drinking while driving one be instituted?
Driving while stoned leads to more traffic accidents in a country where marijuana is legal

Would be hard to undo the precedent of “innocent until proven guilty” that the entire judicial system was built on.

Then throw in a scenario with multiple people in a car using multiple cell phones. Mine was off but the 3 others were active. Who’s to say I wasn’t using someone else’s? Having cell phones automatically deactivate when in motion is a no go either, I’m on call, hospital trying to reach me but I’m running around town doing errands on the weekend.

FWIW, going hands free really isn’t any better. That was a Mythbuster episode.

Question: is talking through your car bluetooth via phone more dangerous than talking to a passenger in the vehicle? If talking to a person from your cars’ bluetooth via phone is just as distracting, then talking to a passenger in the vehicle would be just as dangerous.


Yes, it is. A passenger will pause because of driving conditions, a person on the other end of a phone call has no idea what’s happening. Both are splitting the driver’s attention from what’s happening on the road, but only one of them can react and modulate the conversation in tune with the external conditions.

There is some (flawed) research showing that talking to passengers is involved in more accidents, but that’s because there is more talking to passengers, not because it’s more distracting.


We have idiots driving large pickups trucks, vans and SUVs killing and maiming thousands of people every year.

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The drivers conducted the experiment while talking to a friend on a cell phone or while talking to a friend seated nearby.

Your article pre-dates laws against texting and talking on cell phones while driving, since 2008 cars have become much more sophisticated and don’t require a driver to touch a phone or look away from the road to engage in a cell phone call. In the article I assume that the driver was holding a cell phone in hand while talking.

Further, It depends on the conversation. Nowadays you can tell your car, “call home”.
If the conversation is something like,
“i’m on my way home”
“ok, see ya in twenty mins”?
“Ok, bye”

Compared to a conversation where the caller is asking you a hypothetical question like, “If you were in the Olympics, what sport would you compete in, and why?”

OTOH, if you have a passenger that is arguing with you or expressing something in an emotional manner, it can be very distracting. Whereas, if you’re on a phone call, you can simply hang up.

Furthermore, what if the caller is telling you a narrative about their day at work, and you are only listening and not interacting, how is that different than listening to a radio interview?

There are just so many variables. Common sense and good judgement prevails for safety. I imagine there are some Americans that lack that; but banning all cell phones in cars? I say if you ban cell phones you ban radios, and music equipment and speakers in cars.

However, I see people at stoplights or in slow moving traffic who are texting all the time. Nowadays, there are cars that can radar drive in bumper to bumper traffic and you don’t even need to look at the road. There is more evidence that texting and driving has caused an increase in traffic accidents. There are still some states that allow it I believe. In California, if you touch a phone it’s illegal, and anyone under eighteen can not use a hands free, and their reaction times are probably much better than an 80 year old on a bluetooth call.


Which means a vast majority of drivers are unable to drive safely.


In many places, new drivers are restricted regarding the number, and ages, of passengers in the vehicle with them.

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So no using a GPS navigation app on a phone but you can use a GPS built into the car? No streaming music from a phone but you can listen to the car radio? Do we have to go back to cassette tapes or CDs?