Busy road shows the car technology that promises to save lives.
Illustration: alexander wells/folio art

Automotive safety technology seems to be advancing at breakneck speed. Today, automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems use sensors to help vehicles avoid collisions—or reduce the severity—when drivers fail to act. There are early signs that advances in vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication will one day allow cars to talk to—and avoid—each other. And automakers and tech companies say that some day self-driving cars, the Holy Grail of highway safety, may reduce or even eliminate crashes.

Yet even with all the safety advances over several decades, more than 37,000 people died on U.S. roadways in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, down slightly from 2016. That’s still about 5,000 more deaths annually than in 2011, a historically significant low point for fatalities. The National Safety Council, which also tallies deaths on private roads, says the annual figure is actually more than 40,000.

Automakers and regulators have worked to make cars and driving safer for more than 50 years. So why aren’t U.S. highway fatalities going down? People are driving more miles than in the past, but that doesn’t explain the increase entirely. Transportation experts say the industry and others, such as government road designers, safety regulators, and drivers, could be doing more to bring the number down.

“There’s still so much safety tech on the shelf, and too many people are overconfident about their driving,” says David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports. “The fundamental cultural question is: Why do we tolerate this many highway fatalities?”

Learn about the crash-test dummy of the future, below.

More on Car Safety

There isn’t one answer. Drunken drivers are still killing themselves and others, and distracted driving remains a deadly epidemic. Some argue that urban road design favors traffic flow over safety. Many of the planned safety advances from automakers are years away, and some proven safety features are still reserved as luxury options.

CR believes that systems with AEB, pedestrian detection, forward collision warning (FCW), and blind spot warning (BSW) should come standard on all models because they save lives.

For this report, CR looked at the stubborn problem of U.S. highway fatalities through the eyes of safety researchers. We analyzed what it would take to save lives with better cars, better roads, and better drivers.

“The numbers shouldn’t be stagnating, they should be going down,” says Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “People—because we are human beings—make mistakes. We need to find mechanisms and technology that help people be safer.” A bad decision by a driver or programmer shouldn’t cost a life, he says.

Part One: The Car

The promise of self-driving cars is so exciting because the technology could significantly reduce traffic deaths. More than 9 of every 10 serious crashes are linked to driver error, according to NHTSA. In theory, a robot-driven car doesn’t fall asleep or get drunk. It doesn’t make human mistakes.

Of course, there are a lot of unknowns with this reasoning. Fully automated vehicles don’t exist yet, and if and when they’re launched for everyday use, they still could be vulnerable to other kinds of errors, such as design defects or programming glitches. And there’s currently no agreement among regulators, automakers, and watchdog groups about how to measure the performance of self-driving test cars on the road. Until that question is answered in a way that inspires public confidence, many of the expected safety benefits could remain theoretical.

In the same vein, V2V communication is often cited as a key to developing a future transportation system so smart that crashes and traffic fatalities are rare. This technology uses short-range radio signals (or the 5G networks of the future) so that cars can “talk” to each other and coordinate with traffic signals.

A few automakers have installed V2V hardware in vehicles. But the holdup in equipping more cars has more to do with priorities than the pace of technological development.

A proposal by NHTSA to establish V2V ground rules has been mired in a dispute between automakers and tech companies. The tech industry wants the airwaves now reserved for V2V to be used to expand WiFi. There are other proposals within government that are part of this debate.

It’s clear that some existing crash-avoidance technologies are saving lives today. Some groups want more new cars to have these features, such as FCW and AEB.

“We can save countless lives by taking action now on verified technology and comprehensive laws,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C., in a recent webcast presentation.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the agency that investigates aviation accidents and other high-profile transportation crashes, has called for manufacturers to equip vehicles with some of these features. In 2001 it asked NHTSA to develop regulations that require FCW and adaptive cruise control.

The NTSB also has called for AEB in every car. The safety board can’t create regulations on its own and usually only issues recommendations after an investigation. Regulators and auto companies aren’t required to follow them. In 2016 auto manufacturers came to a voluntary agreement to roll out standard AEB on almost all new passenger vehicles by Sept. 2022. Even as many drivers wait to get these systems, just 44 percent of 2019 models have FCW and AEB as standard equipment.

Rob Molloy, the director of highway safety at the NTSB, considers the AEB rollout an example of slow government progress.

“The fact that they’re moving forward now? Great,” he says. “It took too long.”

Molloy says the auto industry tends to focus on the next big thing, and so incremental advances take longer than they should, costing lives.

CR and other safety advocates say that the federal government should reconfigure crash tests to better reflect real-world dangers.

The auto industry supports continued efforts to improve crashworthiness and overall vehicle safety, says Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. But he says customers could benefit from technology faster if compliance were voluntary rather than mandated through a typically lengthy rulemaking process.

Antilock brakes, electronic stability control, and lane departure warning are examples of lifesaving technology that automakers introduced on their own, Newton points out. “Automakers compete with one another to produce the safest vehicles,” he says.

Consumer Reports rewards automakers that make lifesaving advances standard on all models. The most recent safety features that CR now factors into a vehicle’s Overall Score include FCW and AEB. “All vehicles need these proven technologies,” says Jake Fisher, the senior director of auto testing. “It’s really a no-brainer, so we’re rewarding companies that have added these systems.”

Part Two: The Roads

A poorly designed road can escalate a small error into a fatality. Traffic engineers know that a minor change in the sweep of a curve or an unclear road sign can have an impact on safety. For this reason, dozens of cities in the U.S. are completely rethinking road design with safety top of mind.

In the U.S., there are about 12 roadway deaths per 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. In much of Western Europe, it’s under five. In Sweden, it’s less than three.

Some communities are changing their street design and traffic laws. In 2014 New York was one of the first cities in the U.S. to adopt the Vision Zero concept, which calls for city planners to rethink everything about roads, bike lanes, and pedestrian routes. The goal is to eliminate all vehicle-related deaths.

“We want a safe system,” says Leah Shahum, executive director of the Vision Zero Network, the nonprofit organization that connects these efforts in cities across the country.

Building on what has worked in other countries, Vision Zero pushes proven methods based on big-data analysis to identify and improve dangerous streets and intersections. For example:

In Seattle, officials reduced the number of traffic lanes on Rainier Avenue. There have been no serious injuries or deaths on that dangerous stretch since the change, officials say.

New York City officials tout the safety improvements to Queens Boulevard, which was transformed into a more pedestrian-friendly road with protected bike lanes and trees. Before the changes, more than seven pedestrians were killed or severely injured per mile on the road. There were no fatalities in the two years after the redesign began in 2015.

Projects like these often encounter resistance from residents who worry about longer commutes. And sometimes Vision Zero goals conflict with other priorities in urban areas. For example, some cities have found that lowering speed limits requires changing state law. “We generally know what works,” Shahum says. “We’re just not necessarily doing it.”

Speed limits also play a key role in road safety, yet outside of cities, the trend has been to set them higher. During the 1970s energy crisis, the U.S. adopted a nationwide 55 mph limit. Signs reminded motorists that lower speeds saved lives. In the decades since, states have been allowed to set their own limits, and they’ve ratcheted upward.

Most states have a speed limit of 65 or 70 mph on highways. Seven states have adopted an 80-mph speed limit on some highways. It’s 85 mph on a 40-mile stretch of Texas tollway between Austin and San Antonio. A California lawmaker recently proposed a West Coast autobahn with no speed limit.

Motorists have become used to driving faster than the posted speed limit no matter the number, says Russ Martin, director of policy and government relations at the Governors Highway Safety Association. Even though almost everyone recognizes that speeding isn’t safe, they do it anyway. “The public is generally not behind us,” he says.

Part Three: The Driver

It’s no mystery that driver mistakes contribute to highway crashes and injuries. Drunken driving, speeding, and failing to wear a seat belt are three major reasons. Sometimes drivers engage in more than one of these risky behaviors at the same time. Each contributes to about 10,000 traffic deaths per year.

Human behavior remains the most common contributor to crashes, but it’s also the hardest to change.

Men may be especially vulnerable; they’re 1.5 times more likely than women to die in a crash, according to a CR analysis of NHTSA data.

Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics for the National Safety Council, says we persist in accepting the status quo because we see it as normal. “We need to change our expectations,” he says, “and break out of our complacency.”

Safety advocates say the solutions are well-known. Seat-belt use, for example, is higher in states with strong enforcement. States with tougher drunken-driving laws have lower death rates. Most states ban driver texting, but the laws don’t capture other ways people use their phones. The NTSB has called for a ban on the use of handheld devices while driving.

The fight to lower the death toll largely plays out in state capitals, and the political will needed to enact proven solutions isn’t always there.

“We expect perfection, and we have so many fail-safes in pretty much every other transportation mode other than motor vehicles,” says Jane Terry, senior director of government affairs at the National Safety Council. “Why don’t we expect the same and have some of these fail-safes in the roadway transportation system?”

Some progress has been made. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups have succeeded in focusing attention on dangerous behavior behind the wheel. In 1998 the federal government lowered its definition of impaired driving to a blood-alcohol level of 0.08, and established a grant program to encourage states to follow suit.

The NTSB and other safety advocates say the limit should be 0.05, the same as in many European countries. Research shows that even having just a few drinks can impair a driver. Utah recently became the first state to lower its standard to 0.05.

Restaurants and bars are among the groups that oppose lowering the standard. They argue that limited police resources will be wasted targeting light and moderate drinkers.

Distraction by smartphones, including calls and texting while driving, remains a safety concern. The NTSB recently called for a national campaign against distracted driving as one of its “Most Wanted” improvements to save lives.

NHTSA estimates there were 3,450 fatalities involving distracted drivers in 2016. NTSB officials say they’ve encountered distracted operators in all modes of transportation, including truck drivers, railroad engineers, and boat captains.

Many drivers think they can multitask while operating a car safely. But NTSB research shows that’s a myth; humans can focus cognitive attention only on one thing at a time, says Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the NTSB. “We try to fix human nature here, but that’s really hard.”

As safety advocates push for new laws, their energy is sometimes spent fighting the repeal of existing statutes, says Cathy Chase of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Those opposed to such laws often argue that it’s not the government’s role to tell motorists how to behave. But in reality, there’s a huge economic cost to traffic crashes: $242 billion each year, according to NHTSA. That amounts to an annual “crash tax” of $784 for every U.S. resident, Chase says. The cost includes property damage, subsidizing medical services, and economic loss from out-of-work employees.

Chase says that toughening safety standards is a long process. “Sometimes there’s a very vocal—albeit minority—constituency that opposes some of these safety provisions,” she says. Sometimes there are lawmakers blocking them. “These are multiyear efforts,” Chase says. “They take a lot of fortitude.”

Crash-Test Dummy of the Future

Meet THOR, the next-generation dummy perhaps coming soon to a crash test near you.

The name stands for Test Device for Human Occupant Restraint, and THOR is packed with sensors and designed to act more like a human body in a crash than previous dummies.

THOR will be used in European crash tests for the first time in 2020. The plan by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to deploy THOR in the U.S. has been delayed.

Photo: Humanetics

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.