Every year thousands of Americans die on the roads. Individuals take the blame for systemic problems.

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About the author: David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School"s Taubman Center for State và Local Government. He writes frequently about the future of urban mobility and giải pháp công nghệ.


More than đôi mươi,000 people died on American roadways from January to lớn June, the highest total for the first half of any year since 2006. U.S. road fatalities have sầu risen by more than 10 percent over the past decade, even as they have fallen across most of the developed world. In the European Union, whose population is one-third larger than America’s, traffic deaths dropped by 36 percent between 2010 và 2020, to lớn 18,800. That downward trkết thúc is no accident: European regulators have sầu pushed carmakers khổng lồ build vehicles that are safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and governments regularly adjust road designs after a crash to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.

But in the United States, the responsibility for road safety largely falls on the individual sitting behind the wheel, or riding a bike, or crossing the street. American transportation departments, law-enforcement agencies, và news outlets frequently maintain that most crashes—indeed, 94 percent of them, according lớn the most widely circulated statistic—are solely due lớn human error. Blaming the bad decisions of road users implies that nobody else could have prevented them. That enables oto companies to deflect attention from their decisions to lớn add heft and height khổng lồ the SUVs và trucks that biến hóa an ever-larger portion of vehicle sales, & it allows traffic engineers to lớn escape scrutiny for dangerous street designs.

Read: The absurd primacy of the autothiết bị di động in American life

The recently passed infrastructure bill will encourage some safety improvements, including giải pháp công nghệ lớn prevent drunk people from operating a car và better crash tests to lớn address risk khổng lồ people outside a vehicle. Yet even as the federal government prepares to shovel out hundreds of billions of dollars for roadwork, Americans’ fundamental misconception of traffic deaths as merely a profusion of individual mistakes will go largely uncorrected.

In năm ngoái, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, published a two-page memo declaring that “the critical reason, which is the last sự kiện in the crash causal chain, was assigned to lớn the driver in 94% of the crashes.” The memo, which was based on the NHTSA’s own analysis of crashes, then offered a key caveat: “Although the critical reason is an important part of the description of events leading up khổng lồ the crash, it is not intended khổng lồ be interpreted as the cause of the crash.”

To understvà what the NHTSA was trying lớn say, imagine the following scenario: It’s a foggy day, & the driver of an SUV is traveling along a road at the posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour. The limit then drops khổng lồ 25 as the road approaches a town—but the road’s lanes bởi vì not narrow (which would naturally compel a driver to lớn apply the brakes), & the lone sign announcing the lower speed limit is partially obstructed. Oblivious to lớn the change, the driver keeps traveling at 40. As he enters the town, a pedestrian crosses the road at an intersection without a stoplight. The driver strikes the pedestrian.

Read: The pedestrian-death crisis came khổng lồ my neighborhood

By the federal government’s definition, the “critical reason” for this hypothetical crash—the last event in the causal chain—is the error made by the driver who was speeding at the time of the collision. Almost certainly, the police will hold him responsible. But that overlooks many other factors: The foggy weather obscured the driver’s vision; flawed traffic engineering failed lớn compel hyên to lớn slow down as he approached the intersection; the SUV’s weight made the force of the impact much greater than a sedan’s would have sầu been.

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The authors of the 2015 NHTSA report were aware of such contributing factors. But their disclaimer that the “critical reason” for a crash is not the same as the “cause” has been largely ignored. Even a page on the agency’s own website whittles the message down to “94% of serious crashes are due lớn human error.”

Seeking lớn find a single cause for a crash is a fundamentally flawed approach to road safety, but it underpins much of American traffic enforcement and crash prevention. After a collision, police tệp tin a report, noting who violated traffic laws and generally ignoring factors like road & vehicle design. Insurance companies, too, are structured to lớn hold someone accountable. Drivers aren’t the only ones who face such judgments. Following a crash, a pedestrian might be blamed for crossing a street where there is no crosswalk (even if the nearest one is a quarter mile away), và a cyccác mục might be cited for not wearing a helmet (although a protected xe đạp lane would have prevented the crash entirely). News stories reinforce these narratives, with stories limited khổng lồ the driver who was speeding or the pedestrian who crossed against the light.

Indeed, journalists have disseminated the misleading 94 percent line on influential platforms including The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, và The Washington Post. Retìm kiếm institutions such as the University of Michigan & the University of Idaho have sầu done it too. Even former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has helped sow confusion, as have transportation departments in states such as Illinois, Utah, and Texas.

“The 94 percent line is a repeated reference at almost every state conference I’ve sầu ever attended,” Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told me. When the Michigan DOT spokesman Jeff Cranson speculated in a 2019 podcast that human error is actually responsible for more than 95 percent of crashes, the Michigan State University engineering professor Timothy Gates responded, “Yeah, I would agree with that, there’s very few crashes caused by a vehicle defect or road defect, a lot of it really is human error.” That’s a convenient perspective for engineers designing vehicles and roads.

And if the buông chồng stops with the driver, automakers feel less pressure khổng lồ make lifesaving safety features standard across their models—which many of them bởi vì not. Last year, Consumer Reports found that the average vehicle buyer would have sầu lớn pay $2,500 for a blind-spot-detection system. Pedestrian-detection công nghệ was standard on 13 of the 15 most popular vehicle models—but unavailable on one and part of a $16,000 optional package on another.

Read: Cars, pedestrians, and the struggle for the future of downtowns

With responsibility falling on those directly involved in a crash, it’s unsurprising that so many highway-safety efforts revolve sầu around education campaigns, assuming that if people were just more careful, we’d all be okay. Officials at the NHTSA và state DOTs pour millions of dollars into these programs, but their benefits seem modest at best. Officials “see their role as trying khổng lồ cajole people on the roads to lớn make smarter decisions,” Seth LaJeunesse, a senior retìm kiếm associate at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, told me. “Wear a seat belt, don’t be drunk when driving, và signal appropriately. I think it’s misguided. After all, who’s going khổng lồ address structural problems, if it’s just people being stupid out there on the road?”

For now, the idea that human error causes nearly all crashes is a useful talking point for the makers of autonomous-vehicle công nghệ, which supposedly will prevent such mistakes. Companies including General Motors, Google, & the start-up Aurora have sầu touted the 94 percent statistic in promotional materials, press statements, & even SEC filings. But, as the Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Phil Koopman has pointed out, autonomous systems will make their own errors on the road. He does not expect AVs to lớn reduce crashes by more than 50 percent, even in a best-case scenario. And an all-autonomous driving future is still at least decades away, suggesting that AVs will not reverse the growing death toll on American roads for many years to lớn come—if they ever vì.

With the infrastructure bill now signed inlớn law, the federal government has a chance to rethink its approach & messaging. Dumping the dangerous 94 percent myth would be a good start; deemphasizing pointless traffic-safety truyền bá campaigns would help too. Encouraging state and local transportation agencies—not just law enforcement—to investigate crashes, which New York City is now doing, would be even better. What we need most is a reexamination of how carmakers, traffic engineers, và community members—as well as the traveling public—together bear responsibility for saving some of the thousands of lives lost annually on American roadways. Blaming human error alone is convenient, but it places all Americans in greater danger.

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