Traffic fatalities rise: can we really blame apps?

November 16, 2016

It'll probably be another week or two before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration releases its official stats on 2015 traffic fatalities. However, early data suggests a significant uptick from 2014--potentially 7.7 percent or higher.

What's to blame for that sharp increase? According to some analysts, it has everything to do with apps.

At first glance, that might seem absurd--after all, apps have been a part of our lives since the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, and roadway deaths have steadily declined in the intervening years. And of course, even before we had apps, we were able to send and receive calls, texts, and emails on our mobile devices. Surely apps can't be any more distracting than those, can they?

The problem is a complicated one. Here are a few of the major issues fueling the likely rise in fatalities:

1. The smartphone is increasingly central: When's the last time you left the house without your mobile phone? Did you turn around and get it? If not, did you feel naked and disconnected all day? To many, a smartphone is as important as a wallet or purse, and in the future--thanks to features like Apple Pay and digital driver's licenses--it'll be even more so.  

2. Our driving experience depends on apps: Given how central smartphones are in our lives, it's no surprise that we prioritize them while driving. We use our mobile devices to stream music, get directions, and more, and in the process, we're increasingly distracted.

3. The app environment is exploding: In the 1990s, the web overflowed with sites for e-commerce, news, and more. Entrepreneurs saw the web as a huge opportunity to make serious amounts of dough very quickly. That same thing is happening again, only this time, the hot commodity isn't websites, it's apps. 

4. Those apps aren't intended for use in every situation: Obviously, very few apps are meant to be used while driving. Those like Snapchat and Pokemon Go have proven to be especially distracting for motorists--particularly younger, less-experienced ones. Even allegedly "safe" apps that make use of voice commands can wreak havok on the roads. 

The solution to the problem is no less complicated. While apps are certainly a factor in America's rising fatality rate, the economy also plays as role, as do a range of human errors like drinking and driving. As NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind explained back in July:

"As the economy has improved and gas prices have fallen, more Americans are driving more miles. But that only explains part of the increase [in fatalities]. Ninety-four percent of crashes can be tied back to a human choice or error, so we know we need to focus our efforts on improving human behavior while promoting vehicle technology that not only protects people in crashes, but helps prevent crashes in the first place."

Frankly, we don't see smartphones or apps going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, the only thing that may save us from the allure of our screens is the arrival of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. They may not get us out of every jam, but at least they don't get distracted

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