The U.S. can reduce highway deaths to zero, says the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“It can be done,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said Thursday at the Virginia Distracted Driving Summit. “All of these crashes are avoidable.”
An estimated 34,080 people died in U.S. motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an increase of 5.3 percent compared with the number of highway deaths in 2011.
In Virginia last year, 775 people were killed and more than 67,000 were injured in highway accidents, the state Department of Motor Vehicles said.
The economic cost of traffic crashes statewide was an estimated $3.3 billion in 2011, according to the National Safety Council.
“Human factors are a huge issue” in road crashes, Hersman said. “Most of these are (due to) choices or decisions that people make.”
The U.S. airline industry’s rigorous safety efforts point the way to reducing traffic deaths, she said. Though U.S. airlines made 9.4 million flights carrying more than 642 million passengers in 2012, no one died on a U.S. airliner last year.
“We’ve had more years with zero (airline) fatalities since I came on the board than years with fatalities,” Hersman said.
The NTSB investigates every civil aviation accident in the U.S., as well as especially significant railroad, highway, marine and pipeline accidents.
Two problem areas in highway safety cry out for attention while also offering the prospect for significant improvements, Hersman said: drinking and driving, and distracted driving.
• Impaired driving is epidemic, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
“Every hour, one person is killed and 20 people are injured in crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver,” the safety agency said. “That adds up quickly to nearly 10,000 deaths and more than 173,000 injuries each year.”
In Virginia, DMV figures show, nearly a third of 2012’s fatalities — 229 people — died in alcohol-related crashes, and more than 5,800 people suffered injuries in highway accidents involving alcohol.
• Though the actual number of fatalities due to distracted driving is uncertain, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put the toll at more than 3,300 for 2011.
“I think the number is underreported,” Hersman said. “A lot of people don’t survive to tell you what happens.”
The NTSB has called for a ban on the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices, such as smartphones and laptop computers, while driving.
The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute determined that 80 percent of all crashes involve a distracted driving incident within 3 seconds of the crash.
According to a study by the Virginia Tech group, text messaging doubled the risk of a crash or near-crash and resulted in drivers taking their eyes off the road for an average of 23 seconds.
Completing a phone call — reaching for a phone, looking up a contact and dialing the number — tripled the risk of a crash, Tech’s Transportation Institute said. Even hands-free cellphone use involves distracting actions and greater crash risk.
About 300 people attended the event, organized by Drive Smart Virginia, a traffic safety advocacy organization, and held at the Westin Richmond hotel in Henrico County.
Hersman graduated from Virginia Tech and earned a master’s degree from George Mason University. She holds a commercial driver’s license as well as a motorcycle endorsement.