Despite the first decline in U.S. traffic deaths after seven quarters of year-over-year increases, the nation should be alarmed by the overall surge in fatalities over the last decade, and it is incumbent on the automotive industry, regulators and lawmakers to act urgently to reverse this public health crisis.
In the second quarter of this year alone, 10,590 people died on U.S. roads, NHTSA reported. While that is a 4.9 percent improvement over the same period the previous year, the three-month tally equals nearly a third of the total number of traffic fatalities in all of 2011.
Annual traffic deaths in 2021 were 32 percent higher than they were a decade earlier. They had been trending down from 2016 to 2019 before a sharp turn back up in 2020 and again in 2021. This could be attributed to a number of factors — poor road infrastructure, an increase in aggressive and distracted driving, and rising alcohol and recreational drug use. And we do not yet know whether there is a correlation with the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be sure, the industry has engineered new vehicles to be safer than ever, whether it's improvements in vehicle structure to better absorb crashes or technologies that prevent collisions or at least mitigate impact and bodily harm. But with the average age of the U.S. fleet surpassing 12 years, there is still a large population of vehicles without the most modern safety features.
The federal government, to its credit, is addressing the cause of one-third of annual traffic deaths: drunken driving. The National Transportation Safety Board is calling for NHTSA to require passive alcohol-detection systems and/or advanced driver-monitoring systems in all new vehicles. And the infrastructure law signed last year orders NHTSA to issue a final rule by 2024 requiring new vehicles to be equipped with tech that stops impaired people from driving.
It's discouraging that Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., is leading an effort to reverse the requirement. He contends, according to a spokesperson, the government would have "unchecked authority to place passive technology in vehicles that could easily violate privacy rights of law-abiding citizens."
A drunken driver can violate an innocent person's right to not be mangled or killed. That supersedes Rounds' specious argument of governmental meddling. We urge all stakeholders to continue to act to protect people's lives.