Driver distraction as a traffic safety problem is getting worse, and the auto industry must step up its response.
The idea that bad things happen when motorists lose their focus on the road ahead isn't new. We have had traffic laws, driver licensing, sobriety campaigns, infrastructure upgrades, auto technology improvements and safety programs as long as we can remember.
Despite huge increases in U.S. population, licensed vehicles and miles driven, the average person's chance of being killed on the road has dropped for a century.
Since U.S. regulators started measuring them, fatalities per 100 million passenger miles have steadily fallen: from 24 in 1921 to under 10 by 1946, under five by 1961, under three by 1982, under two in 1991. In 2014, there were 32,675 U.S. motor vehicle fatalities, but the lowest odds yet: 1.08 deaths per 100 million miles, according to Department of Transportation data.
Then 2015 happened: an estimated 35,300 deaths, rising 8 percent, according to other department data.
Safety investigators aren't sure why fatalities jumped so much, says Deborah Hersman, CEO of the National Safety Council and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. But she and others suspect driver distraction.
The phenomenon is difficult to quantify in autos, but evidence from accident investigations in other vehicle types shows that driver distraction kills -- enough so that accident investigators now rush to preserve electronic devices found at the scene and check cellphone, text and messaging records, Hersman says.
"People are addicted to their devices," she says, noting that using electronic devices excites the same brain reward centers associated with sex and drugs.
But we don't need Hersman and other experts to tell us that. We see it ourselves every day on the road.
Drivers are distracted -- much more so than in the past.
Twenty years ago, I'd watch Los Angeles commuters stuck in creeping traffic doing dumb stuff: applying makeup, combing hair, drying nails through sunroofs, once even playing a trumpet. But most distracted drivers back then kept their eyes on the road.
Now, you pass folks immersed in their cellphones. Lots of texting. Lane wandering. Sudden veering. Late braking. Or doing 10 under in the fast lane, oblivious to those passing on the right.
I used to call them "phone drunks." Now I mutter, "screen drunk."
Ask yourself: Are you surprised that road deaths rose last year?