Technology is constantly increasing our road safety. Over the decades we have seen the introduction and (eventual) widespread use of things like seat belts and airbags, which together have dramatically reduced the number of deaths in motor vehicles. We’ve also seen better traffic lights, better street and city designs, and better vehicle designs that protect us all in new and innovative ways.
Now we are at the forefront of a new wave in vehicle safety technology. We’re seeing much more advanced control systems in vehicles, including self-driving components, and our knowledge of traffic safety is constantly expanding thanks to big data analytics.
Could we ever get to a point where we can reduce the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents to zero?
The most common causes of accidents
First, let’s examine some of the most common causes of accidents and how technology may or may not prevent them in the future:
- One of the most common causes of accidents is distraction. Drivers join a conversation or glimpse their phones and then get involved in a collision. Autonomous vehicles could hypothetically eliminate this problem.
- Autonomous vehicles could also hypothetically solve the problem of drunk driving and ensure that only sober drivers can operate vehicles.
- Excessive speed makes many fatal accidents difficult. Strict speed controls with an on-board computer could possibly fix this.
- Ruthless drivers willing to bend or break the law cause thousands of fatal accidents every year. Strict controls or autonomous vehicles could potentially prevent most of these measures.
- Bad weather. Bad weather is a little more difficult. Smart braking and better obstacle detection systems could reduce the risk here, but bad weather will always be a problem.
Even together, these causes of course only make up a fraction of fatal accidents with motor vehicles.
Technology and increased accident prevalence
We also need to take into account that even the greatest safety technologies may not have a positive impact on reducing vehicle deaths. Indeed, some technologies can increase the number and / or severity of accidents.
- One way is through superconsciousness. When a driver feels invulnerable thanks to new technology, they may be more inconsiderate. For example, gyroscopic balancing technology on motorcycles can cause inexperienced motorcyclists to be overconfident about weaving traffic in and out. And of course, semi-autonomous vehicles can make drivers so confident and carefree that they are literally ready to take a nap on the freeway.
- Some technologies are primarily used as a distraction. Your vehicle may have an “intelligent” digital assistant that you can use to safely navigate and operate your vehicle. But what if it takes your attention off the road?
- New types of accidents. New types of accidents may also arise from new technologies. For example, if a hacker can potentially take control of an autonomous vehicle remotely, it could wreak havoc.
Regardless of how far our technology advances, or what kind of science fiction inventions are created in the future, there will be a few problems that will prevent motor vehicle deaths:
- Technology-specific problems. Technology isn’t perfect. If you’ve ever owned a computer that has crashed, or a smartphone that has unexpectedly failed, you know this. Regardless of what advanced technologies emerge, there will always be some technology-related problems that will cause accidents or worsen them. Even airbags can occasionally be fatal, although they save far greater numbers of lives.
- Weather and bad conditions. Until technology to control the weather develops, bad weather conditions will continue to be a problem for automobiles. Even the best control and braking systems in the world will struggle to prevent accidents in the midst of a heavy blizzard.
- Unusual accidents. Some accidents are really unavoidable. If lightning strikes a tree and falls on a vehicle, it doesn’t matter how much technology is on that vehicle. The damage will unfold.
- Pedestrians are at a much higher risk of dying in a traffic accident because they have no protection against colliding vehicles. And pedestrians don’t always behave rationally or predictably. No matter how far our streets and vehicles are, there will always be some pedestrians in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Does this mean that new technologies should be avoided or that they will be responsible for increasing the number of car deaths? Certainly not. It seems that every year we get access to new technologies that make us safer and reduce deaths. But as long as there are motor vehicles in motion and people are in or near them, vehicle deaths will continue. It is practically impossible to reduce this number to zero.