Research by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.) has shown that vehicle crashes are almost always caused by driver error. For instance, when a sample of 5,470 crashes was investigated over a period of two-and-a-half years, NHTSA said drivers were responsible about 94% of the time, while a vehicle component’s failure or degradation was responsible for about 2% of crashes, and environmental factors, such as inclement weather and slick roads, were to blame for another 2% of crashes.
Autonomous vehicles will reduce the opportunity for driver error due to distraction, poor decisionmaking, and inadequate response times by leveraging sensors and V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communications technology to avoid accidents and keep passengers safe. However, autonomous vehicles won’t rule the road for many years to come. In the meantime, there will be several decades of road sharing between vehicles that fall everywhere on the autonomous spectrum. During this transition period, human operators will drive their vehicles alongside self-driving cars, and, therefore, human error will continue to cause accidents.
A new report from the GHSA (Governors Highway Safety Assn.) urges the industry not to overlook the role humans will continue to play in road safety, even as autonomous technology begins to take hold. After all, the transition from human-operated vehicles to autonomous vehicles won’t be sudden. Vehicles will feature increasingly autonomous capabilities that will allow humans to step in and act as needed or desired. For this reason, distraction and poor decisionmaking will still be a factor in road crashes for the foreseeable future, and the GHSA is urging states to continue to invest in programs that prioritize safe driving behaviors.
In fact, the increasingly autonomous nature of vehicles may introduce new issues and the need for new education efforts and state legislation. For instance, on the legislation side of the coin, states may consider laws requiring a licensed driver to be present in AVs (autonomous vehicles) in case a human operator needs to assume control of the vehicle. Law enforcement policies and procedures may also need to be adjusted to accommodate the new nature of roadways.
Until all vehicles on the road are fully autonomous, distracted driving laws will also still be necessary, alongside educational and awareness campaigns that warn about distracted driving and other types of impaired driving. The GHSA report’s author, Jim Hedlund, a former senior official with the NHTSA, says one of the most important goals in upcoming years should be to educate the public about the benefits and risks of AV technology, including how to use the technology safely and how to drive near AVs in traffic.
Autonomous vehicles will require new efforts in many areas, including not only state legislation, changes to law enforcement policies and procedures, and public awareness and safety education but also infrastructure development that supports V2X technology, standards development and the industry-wide sharing of best practices for AV security and safety, as well as thorough AV testing and vetting in real-world situations. Before autonomous vehicles start taking over roadways, more people will need to be convinced that self-driving cars are the way forward. Objective proof that autonomous-vehicle technology can operate better than humans will help, but many will remain loyal to human-operated vehicles for years to come, which will create challenges states will need to address.
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