Coronavirus shutdown linked to another tragic spike in fatalities

Back in March, when the coronavirus reared its ugly head here in the U.S., I grew gravely concerned that the borderline hysterical responses and reactions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would wreak havoc on our overall health and well-being.

And now, my fears have come to fruition…

For one, as I reported earlier this month, the shutdown caused dramatic increases in cases of aggressive, advanced cancers and preventable, excess deaths not related to coronavirus, because people delayed or were simply denied getting much-needed, routine medical care.

And now—we are learning that the shutdown led to another kind of tragic spike in fatalities…

Fewer drivers, yet more deaths on U.S. roads

At some point this spring, most states in the U.S. issued expansive “stay-at-home” orders in an effort to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, there were far fewer drivers on U.S. roads. In fact, those who still had to report to work during the shutdown said they encountered few drivers on their morning and evening commutes. And many experts had expected to see a decline in total motor vehicle fatalities during this quieter time.

However, according to the National Safety Council, automobile-related fatalities actually increased by 14 percent nationally compared to the previous year…adding to the devastating toll this virus has already taken on our country.

Of course, the increase in fatalities may seem counterintuitive, as fewer drivers on the road should have, in theory, made for safer commutes. But as I first learned back in the 1980s, expanding a person’s sense of safety in an automobile often has a way of backfiring…

More safety features means more accidents

Back in the 1980s, I worked as a Medical Examiner in Miami-Dade County in Florida. The decade before, the federal government had mandated that car manufacturers add seatbelts to every vehicle. And many states, including Florida, were well on their way to  requiring drivers and front-seat passengers to wear them. (It became the law in 1986.)

Following this widespread introduction of seatbelts, Miami-Dade’s Medical Examiner’s office saw a drop in the proportion of automobile-related fatalities.

And I had expected we would see a similar drop in fatalities once airbags became standard in most cars. But a very eye-opening conversation with the father of one of my graduate students (Laurie Kunkel, who was working with me on a research project in our office), expanded my view about the potential downside of these “safety” features.

Her father was an insurance industry executive. And he cited evidence showing that the introduction of seatbelts had coincided with more traffic accidents (although the proportion of fatalities was lower).

He said they anticipated seeing the same trend following the introduction of driver- and passenger-side airbags…that there would be a drop in fatalities, but a spike in total accidents.

It seems that these kinds of safety features lead some drivers to feel more complacent, more protected, and less cautious. As a result, they actually end up being careless and getting into more accidents.

Of course, more accidents also mean higher costs for the insurance industry, which, ultimately get passed onto you and me—the responsible motorists who continue to drive carefully…even when wearing a seatbelt in a car with an airbag!

Unfortunately, over the years, car manufacturers have continuously added more and more “idiot-proofing” features that are supposedly designed to keep us safe. But clearly, the verdict’s still out about their effectiveness…

New cars are too smart for our own good

Most new cars today come with a range of new, high-tech safety features—such as  backup cameras, automated parking, and even advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), which alert you when you’re getting too close to a guardrail or another car.

But research is beginning to show that these fancy (and expensive) bells and whistles are highly distracting and making drivers more complacent. In fact, new research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that ADAS lead drivers to pay less attention to the road and traffic conditions. They take your mind off driving by allowing you to be more relaxed about your personal responsibility. They also distract you from the road itself when they are “working,” by forcing you to look at the noisy device or blinking lights—instead of looking at the road itself!

Plus, most of these advanced systems malfunction…

According to research by AAA, vehicles equipped with ADAS experience a problem once every eight miles! The problems include things like causing the automatic breaking or steering to disengage without proper warning to the driver…or allowing the vehicle to go out of its lane, despite “lane-change” technology.

In addition, all of the “hands-free” technologies that allow you to text, talk, or search the internet while driving are, clearly, highly problematic. And a huge distraction! (Especially when they blare out unbidden.) In fact, drivers who text or talk while driving are up to four times more likely to suffer traffic accidents, regardless of whether they’re using a hands-free system or a hand-held device.

In the end, it’s my view that all these high-tech, but ultimately flawed, “idiot-proofing” safety features create a false sense of security among some drivers. Worse yet, they’re dangerous distractions that can actually cause accidents!

So, I suggest sticking with your old car…if it’s still in good shape. And make sure to use all the safe driver techniques you’ve always used your whole life—such as looking over your shoulder before changing lanes or backing up. (I don’t care how big the screen is on my car’s dashboard—I’m still going to look behind me when backing up!)

As I’ve said before, driving a car is one of the best things you can do to keep your brain sharp as you get older. So, make sure you keep it up, even as the coronavirus hysteria continues to drone on. And while the roads may still seem emptier in your neck of the woods, remember to always stay alert and don’t be lulled into a sense of complacency—especially if you’re traveling on a holiday weekend!

Sources:

“On Nearly Emptied Roads, Motor Vehicle Fatality Rate Spikes By 14% In March.” NPR, 5/20/20. (npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/20/859829779/as-states-locked-down-in-march-motor-vehicle-fatality-rate-spiked-by-14)

“AAA Finds Active Driving Assistance Systems Do Less to Assist Drivers and More to Interfere.” AAA Newsroom, 8/6/20. (newsroom.aaa.com/2020/08/aaa-finds-active-driving-assistance-systems-do-less-to-assist-drivers-and-more-to-interfere/)


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