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Is driving getting safer?

A question we are often asked is, Is it getting any better out there? For all the innovations in safety equipment, and heightened consciousness on the part of drivers - are our roads and highways actually safer?

It's an excellent question, and the answer is yes, a little bit. But it's a complicated trend to nail down. And safety is, as it always will be, a work in progress.

Number of car crash deaths

2013

43,000

18.59 deaths per 100,000 vehicles

2012

33,500

12.63 deaths per 100,000 vehicles

Driving is obviously safer than it was in the 20th century, before quantum improvements such as safety glass, radial tires and seatbelts came online. Cars are already equipped with sensors that track changes within the car itself. And more sensors are coming into use, including the idea of the driverless car.

At the same time we have every right to be suspicious of technology as the solution to dangerous highways. Airbags have saved many thousands of lives - but they sometimes do more harm than good. Children especially, because of their height in the seated position, are in jeopardy in front of an airbag. This is why front-seats and children are not recommended.

We have all seen stories of defects in ignition switches, which cause cars to go out of control, and resulted in a recall of 2.6 million GM cars.

Lemons still make it into the showrooms, despite testing failures. The Toyota scandal of the 1990s, involving sudden acceleration, occurred only because government regulators were asleep at the switch. Despite the company's good reputation, Honda's suppression of safety defect evidence was kept from the driving public. Nearly every carmaker has been shown to sweep safety problems under the carpet, in order to boost sales.

The lesson is ...

The lesson in nearly all these stories is that technology is making good progress, but human nature is lagging behind. And this goes beyond carmakers' deceptive actions to the behavior of all of us as drivers. Recent studies show that distracted driving may play an even higher role in accidents than alcohol and drugs.

Distractions are everywhere - changing the channel on the radio, texting a message, lighting a cigarette, wolfing down a sandwich, yelling at your kids in the back seat. Our car feels like home to us, and we get too relaxed there, confident we can handle whatever challenges traffic offers.

Psychologists say we have no idea what's going on during the 10 seconds we text a message. We might as well have had six drinks, or be wearing a blindfold.

In the final analysis, driving is getting safer, but it depends on the definition of safety. Sensors and driver-free technologies will eventually knock down accident statistics. But as long as people are in denial about our own behaviors at the wall, people will be injured and die.

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