The Safety Benefits of Automated Vehicles are Overrated

With the recent fatal collisions involving automated vehicles, people throughout the transportation and technology industries have been weighing in. From what I’ve read, there seems to be some consensus around two points:

  1. We need to slow the testing and deployment of automated vehicles, with some people advocating for a stronger role for government regulators at various levels from local jurisdictions to the Federal government.
  2. We must keep our eyes on the prize — that automated vehicles have the potential to eliminate approximately 90% of all traffic collisions — those caused by human error.

I don’t disagree with the two points above. What I do think is that we are focusing our attention on automating the wrong thing.

A better focus would be on automating enforcement technology.

The mantra among fans of automated vehicles is this 90% statistic. Sure, 90% of collisions are caused or attributed to human error. Let’s dig a little deeper, though:

  1. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 37,461 people died in traffic related collisions in 2016.
  2. Of those deaths, 3,450 people, or 9% were related to “distraction.” To be conservative, let’s assume that half of those were people texting or otherwise using their smartphones.
  3. 10,111 deaths, or 27%, were related to speeding.
  4. 6,827 deaths, or 18%, were pedestrians or bicyclists killed by motor vehicles. These are the highest numbers since the early 1990s, too.

I list the stats above, because that adds up to 54% of all collisions. Even if we reduce the amount of deaths related to distraction, and assume only half of those deaths were due to people using smartphones, that still is about 50% of all traffic related deaths.

Now for the truth: those 50% of all traffic related fatalities were caused by humans breaking the law. We have traffic laws on the books that prohibit using your smartphone while operating a vehicle. We have laws that prohibit driving at speeds above the posted speed limit (or even unsafe for the roadway conditions), and we have traffic control devices and right-of-way laws to keep pedestrian and cyclists safe.

We already have laws on the books to stop these behaviors of human drivers. So rather than look to automated vehicles to “fix” this situation, why aren’t we talking about using the tools we already have to address this? There are thousands of public safety and traffic enforcement personnel across the US whose job it is to enforce these laws. And it is tough to enforce all drivers all the time. The fact is, we aren’t doing a good enough job enforcing the laws on the books — if we were, we’d have half the number of traffic related deaths we do each year. We must agree that our current enforcement approach is not working.

So why aren’t we talking about automating enforcement?

Of the nearly 50% of traffic related fatalities caused be people breaking the law, it would appear that nearly all of those human behaviors could be more efficiently enforced using automated technology. (The tough one is smartphone use by drivers — that one requires a very focused look at the driver inside a vehicle. From my anecdotal experiences standing on various street corners in California, I can tell you that it’s not too hard to spot people using their smartphones while driving.)

Putting the smartphone use aside, that means that about 45% of all traffic related fatalities could be addressed through automated enforcement. Here’s how:

  • Automated speed enforcement, to reduce excessive speeding and reduce the amount of speed-related traffic fatalities (27% of all traffic related fatalities).
  • Automated enforcement of traffic signals, stop signs, exclusive lanes (for bikes and buses), pedestrian crossings, and other related traffic controls, to improve driver adherence to traffic controls and right-of-way laws designed to keep pedestrians, bikes, and vehicles moving safely in a mixed environment, and to reduce the amount of pedestrian and cyclists who are killed by motor vehicles (18% of all traffic related fatalities).

We’ve had the technology for a long time to automate the enforcement outlined above. But we don’t do it. We don’t do it because people complain about the creeping “big brother” nature of the state impeding on their lives. We don’t do it because law enforcement and public safety personnel push back, saying it will take away their jobs. We don’t do it because the US Constitution provides for anyone accused of a crime to be able to confront their accuser in a court of law, and how can a computer be confronted?

Let me say those points in a different way: When confronted with new technology, people are concerned about a loss of privacy, a loss of jobs, and a loss of rights.

Sound familiar? These are the same points typically raised when discussing the pros and cons of automated vehicles.

So why is these such a hype around automated vehicles, while a stigma around automated enforcement? It probably has to do with the fact that people like shiny, new technology, and don’t like being told what to do.

But you know what? We could reduce traffic related fatalities by almost 50% if we focused on automated enforcement. Let that sink in. Almost half of all traffic related fatalities could be reduced if we embraced automated technology.

I’ll leave it at that, for now, and continue to push for the automation of enforcement over the hype of automated vehicles. For local agencies and other government regulators who wonder what to do about automated vehicles, I suggest thinking about the benefits of automated enforcement.

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Sam Morrissey

Transport enthusiast — VP, Transportation at LA28 - Past VP of Urban Movement Labs — Past lecturer at @UCLA. These are my personal posts.