Toward Zero Deaths
Not a Pipe Dream
by Dave Brown
Many traffic safety professionals feel that reaching anything close to zero deaths is just a pipe dream. Hopefully when you read this article you will begin to see that this is not the case. The key to TZD is not exclusively in the driver, although efforts must continue to alter driver behavior in order, for example, to get back what we have lost from the recent fatalities caused by cell phone use and texting while driving.
The feasibility of driverless vehicles became readily apparent recently with Google acquiring a patent for driverless car technology. Quoting from that article: "In June, Nevada became the first state to legalize self-driving cars, a victory for Google which has been working to put technology in the driver's seat by building cars that use radar, video cameras and lasers to navigate traffic. Google contends that computer-powered cars will drive more safely than humans."
This reinforces the viewpoint that the real promise for absolute zero deaths is in technology.
An excellent example of a TZD culture change is in the acceptance of seatbelts and airbags. The technology for airbags was developed in the early 1970s, but it did not become predominant until the early 1990s. Today there is effectively no objection to airbags, and they are taken for granted by most drivers. Seatbelt laws are also generally accepted by society. This is an example of the amount of time it takes to evolve the acceptance of a given technology -- in this case a generation.
Intelligent Vehicle and Highway Systems (IVHS) have also been researched and prototyped for decades. Traffic safety would seem to be a secondary consideration in bringing about their acceptance. Do you get angry when you see a crash? Most drivers feel concern and sadness for those affected, but it is not something that people typically get angry enough to be motivated to do something about.
How about traffic congestion? How about coming to a standstill on an Interstate only to find that there is no apparent reason for it? How about waiting at a traffic light when there is no traffic to speak of in the opposite direction. How about someone using a cell phone in the left lane of the Interstate ten miles per hour under the speed limit? Now things like this really get people mad, and as a result, they are willing to demand that something be done about them. All of these things can be controlled and improved by technology. But more importantly, their solutions generally save lives.
Let's think outside the box for just a minute. The ultimate: several north-south and east-west roadways that are dedicated to high speed motor vehicle travel at speeds in excess of 100 MPH. They are accessible only by vehicles that are equipped with the technology to support travel on them that is as safe as air travel. These vehicles are equipped with radar and communication systems that allow them to interoperate with the roadway and with other vehicles.
Entrances to (or exits from) these dedicated roadways are at least ten miles apart, or perhaps only at major cities. When you enter the roadway you relinquish your speed control and some other navigation capabilities. Your speed is restricted to about 70 MPH until you get into the vicinity of a platoon that soon overtakes you. Once the platoon approaches you automatically join it the perfect coordination of your speed with that of the platoon. Once connected, you and the platoon ramp up to 100 MPH or so.
The front central control vehicle is driven by an extremely skilled and trained professional, and there is also a co-driver just as with an aircraft. All vehicles in the platoon (which might number in the dozens) are closely monitored by the control vehicle and those that become deficient will be required to leave the platoon at the next safe place to exit. While the speeds are in excess of 100 MPH, the efficiency obtained is much greater than can be obtained by vehicles today traveling at 55 MPH, due to the reduced air friction (aka drafting) that results from the close proximity of the vehicles within the platoon. The automated control is also able to produce the maximum of efficiency and those vehicles that contribute most will be given a credit partial refund of their toll.
Cell phone use? No problem. In fact, with the exception of the platoon driver, any other could take a nap, read, surf the Internet or any other recreational or work activity that can be done in a car. The destination is set upon entry and the driver will be given plenty of warning prior to disengagement from the platoon. The platoon will slow to allow vehicles to depart, and all vehicles that are not exiting will be rejoined to the platoon before it resumes its speed.
To those who think this is impossible, all of the technology that is necessary for the above scenario has been developed -- it just has not be tested and refined at the point of being practical and reliable. And, like the airbags of 1970, it has not undergone the culture change necessary to make it (or something similar to it) a reality. But systems like these are being developed and tested both in the US and other countries. See the references below.
If your are still skeptical, then recall that in 1826 when Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated the telephone, most people saw no practical application for his invention. Think of all of the infrastructure that had to be in place before this invention became practically useful, well over 100 years later. The point is that it did not have to occur all at once. And similar technologies evolved with it -- e.g., wire fabrication, electronic amplification, preservation of wood, switching systems, etc.
So, while there are many things that stand in the way of the dedicated road scenario, the components to support the necessary infrastructure can evolve fairly easily, starting with dedicated lanes that enable platoons to move significantly faster than the other traffic flow (albeit, not 100 MPH). Many states already have HOV lanes in place. These early prototypes will stimulate the auto manufacturers to create even smarter vehicles, and there will be a demand on governments to create more intelligent, accommodating roadways. It must all work together for continuous improvement and greater safety.
The above scenario might not be the one that plays out -- there might be a much more practical approach that will evolve over the next decade or so that we have not even thought of. But the principle is the same -- if it is going to happen in a timely way it will require a culture change that will need the support of the traffic safety community.
As we talk of a culture change in making even one fatality unacceptable to society, let us realize that it must go beyond what has traditionally been considered safe driving and safe roadways. We must all be looking forward to a time when traffic fatalities become a thing of the past because the technology has been developed to absolutely prevent them. Like air bags and other vehicle countermeasures, the components of these systems are evolving now and will, over the next few decades, demonstrate that traffic fatalities can truly become a thing of the past. Our hope is that it will not take over 100 years like the telephone did, but even if it does, moving toward the TZD goal will save many lives along the way.
See the article on electric cars obtaining their power from the roadway. This is not a dream -- it has been accomplished experimentally. Also, there is promise in vehicle radar systems. For a general review of automated highway systems (AHS), entitled "What ever happened to AHS?" click here -- and remember, this review is over ten years old!
See articles to the right; also from AASHTO:
"Toward Zero Deaths: a National Strategy on Highway Safety" resource page.
"Toward Zero Deaths: A National Strategy on Highway Safety will be a data-driven effort focusing on identifying and creating opportunities for changing American culture as it relates to highway safety. The effort will also focus on developing strong leadership and champions in the organizations that can directly impact highway safety through engineering, enforcement, education, emergency medical service (EMS), policy, public health, communications, and other efforts. The national strategy will be utilized as a guide and framework by safety stakeholder organizations to enhance current national, state and local safety planning and implementation efforts. The intent is to develop a mechanism for bringing together a wider range of highway safety stakeholders to work toward institutional and cultural changes." -- FHWA Toward Zero Deaths web page link to the right.
For more detailed information, see the articles and links related to TZD white papers to the right.
Note some of the other links to the right: