It’s like we’ve forgotten how to drive, a Harvard expert recently observed of the two-year spike in traffic-related deaths, which marked the abrupt end to years of increasingly safe American roads.
The trend began in 2020 when fatal crashes soared to 38,680, a 7% increase from 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This happened despite the COVID shutdowns which saw traffic ease on the country’s roads. And things got worse in 2021, a time when vaccines became available and workplaces, businesses and schools reopened. A May report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed a further 10.5% rise in fatalities to 42,915 – the worst year for traffic fatalities in 16 years.
The report paints a complete and grim picture, as the tragedies involved just about every type of vehicle and driver of all genders and ages, including the elderly. Even those who weren’t driving cars weren’t safe, as 5% more cyclists and 13% more pedestrians were killed by cars. Public health and medical experts at Harvard have various theories about the main reasons, stress and distraction. But underlying all of this is the breadth and depth of the pandemic’s impact on American society.
Jay Winsten, a health communications expert at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School whose work focuses on road safety, said several factors are likely behind the grim statistics. Studies of alcohol consumption during the pandemic have already shown that people were drinking more, although drinking alone clearly does not explain what happened on the roads.
The empty carriageways also encouraged not only speeding, but also “speeding” – more than 20 miles per hour over the limit – Winsten said. Furthermore, he pointed to the reduction in traffic enforcement at the start of the crisis, when police were reluctant to engage with drivers who might be contagious. Driving fast and recklessly can also be an irresistible and readily available outlet for people stuck in traffic for too long.
“It’s the only arena where you could probably get away with breaking the rules – and there were a lot of people who just wanted to break free,” said Winsten, whose work in the 1990s introduced the concept of the conductor. designated in American culture through a collaboration with media companies. “People were like, ‘Enough, leave me alone.'”
Federal data backs up those suspicions, as speeding and alcohol-related deaths both rose 5% last year, while deaths of those not using seat belts rose 3. %.
Pre-pandemic factors, like checking cellphones and yelling at kids in the back seat, haven’t gone away, Winsten said, but the crisis may also have heightened drivers’ concern for stressors related to the pandemic such as death in the family, child illness, job loss or economic hardship, and even the abrupt shift to remote work and study.
“There’s been this huge compulsion that a lot of people have felt throughout this, which is a big distraction, a dangerous distraction, and an understandable distraction,” Winsten said. “It’s different from making the decision to get your cell phone or grabbing a dropped water bottle. These are voluntary acts, but stress is not voluntary, although you can learn to manage it.
Road deaths hit their highest level in 16 years in 2021
Winsten cited a major study of crashes serious enough to call an ambulance, which found distracted driving to be a critical factor in 30% to 40%, with inadequate supervision – not actively watching the road and traffic. surroundings – the most important factor. Winsten said eye-tracking studies show your eyes stop scanning left and right when your mind isn’t primarily on driving.
“When you’re lost in thought, you can miss a lot of things on the outskirts – a cyclist you’re about to cut, a child rushing down the street after a dance, or a driver running a red light and is heading your way.” Winsten said. “We get away with it most of the time with distraction. And an uneventful trip reinforces our belief that we can handle it, that we’re not the problem, that we’re good at multitasking. But the truth is that we are playing a dangerous game of odds.
Jeremy Wolfe, director of the Visual Attention Lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor of ophthalmology and radiology at Harvard Medical School, said there was little data that probed the root causes of the spike in road deaths. due to the pandemic. Much research, for example, links cellphone use to driver distraction and decreased performance, but there is no evidence that cellphone use has increased among drivers during the pandemic.
He agreed that stress is another potential factor, as the pandemic was certainly stressful enough to have widespread negative effects. Still, Wolfe said he would argue for another possible explanation: rust.
While driving is routine for many of us, Wolfe said it’s also a complex and dynamic activity that requires understanding quickly, sometimes instantaneously, several things at once: vehicle position on the road, its speed, speed and direction. other cars, road conditions, visibility and pedestrian and cyclist activities on the shoulder and sidewalks.
“Doing anything perceptual in the world requires a large set of inferences. You continually do your best to guess what’s going on in the world,” Wolfe said. “Part of being an expert in n Anything is to learn what the right inferences are to make in this context and to make them quickly.”
Just ride with a novice driver on a busy road to appreciate the intricate flow of inferences and constant decision-making that becomes second nature to experienced drivers.
“You have this giant neural network in your head answering questions, all under the radar without telling you – the conscious owner of this fancy brain – about it all the time. But you make those assumptions,” Wolfe said. “Now imagine if you’re locked in your room for a year.”
Wolfe’s scholarly interest is in so-called “Looking but Not Seeing” errors, such as when one repeatedly rereads a document but always misses a grammatical error that someone else points out. for the first time. The term “looking but not seeing” comes from car crashes, Wolfe said, when drivers tell police they looked but didn’t see the red light, the other car or the cyclist.
“In many cases you can be sure that the cyclist was perfectly visible. But the driver isn’t lying, in the sense that the driver didn’t say, “Oh look, there’s a cyclist.” I might hit him. Significantly, they did not see the cyclist or the other crash victim,” Wolfe said. “These types of errors are going to be influenced by, among other things, the quality of a set of inferences you’re making at the time, and those inferences are going to be influenced by distraction.”
These types of episodes tell Wolfe that inference is a key part of visual cognition: the brain doesn’t always see what the eyes are doing, but rather a mixed product influenced by experience and expectations, all of which could two be affected by a long layoff.
Winsten predicted that road deaths will gradually return to pre-pandemic levels, but said the future challenge will be to find a way to make meaningful improvements from those numbers, which before the pandemic hadn’t. experienced only small increases for several years.
Winsten has been actively engaged in campaigns against distracted driving and recently embarked on an effort to promote mindful driving, but said we may be nearing the end of what can be achieved by targeting the driver behavior. It may be time to move on to a systemic approach that has proven successful abroad, where the safety of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists is at the center of decisions about speed limits, improved design roads and pedestrian access.
These approaches, such as Vision Zero – which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities – include separate bike lanes to protect cyclists, speed bumps to slow traffic in places with heavy foot traffic, islands and curb extensions to provide safe havens for pedestrians on roadsides and even in the middle of level crossings.
“All of this is meant to help vulnerable road users stay safe, especially in urban areas,” Winsten said.
Beyond that, technology beckons. While at least some road tragedies can be tracked by smartphones and other tech-born distractions, Winsten said technology also likely holds answers to improving safety, with automotive features such as integrated breathalyzers, automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection, lane departure warnings, among others.
“Technology is part of the cause of our distracted driving problem, but it will also be a crucial part of making further progress in reducing injuries and fatalities,” Winsten said.
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