In a country where technology is advancing at a rapid pace, it seems like roadway fatalities should be a thing of the past. However, the reality is that tens of thousands of drivers die on American roads every year. For decades, the cause of most of these roadway fatalities boiled down to one thing—driver error.
We have an opportunity to do better. Individuals aren’t always to blame for the fatalities on our roadways. Instead, we should look at the roadways themselves and how we can further innovate the way we manage them.
A Glimmer Of Hope
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) new National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS) provides a glimmer of hope and a shift in thinking about the many deaths that have occurred on our roads. According to USDOT, the NRSS “outlines the Department’s comprehensive approach to significantly reducing serious injuries and deaths on our Nation’s highways, roads, and streets. This is the first step in working toward an ambitious long-term goal of reaching zero roadway fatalities.”
This aggressive new safety strategy is completely changing the way our country views roadway fatalities. Rather than blaming fatal incidents on driver error, there’s now a sense of accountability on USDOT to truly look at the assets it manages and how they play into accidents on the roadways. It’s now more a question of how the design and condition of our infrastructure play into the cause of an accident, rather than simply a driver’s lapse in judgment.
How Technology Plays A Role
Perhaps the most exciting and innovative aspect of the NRSS is that it encourages departments of transportation to invest in new technologies that aim to improve road safety. Departments of transportation, or any government agency for that matter, aren’t historically known to invest in groundbreaking technologies from the get-go. However, it’s important to realize that funding these kinds of technologies that are forward-thinking and creative can play an enormous role in our country’s efforts to potentially reach zero roadway fatalities.
For example, according to the Safer Roads Conference, on average, “good street lighting causes a 30% reduction in night-time road casualties compared with poor or no street lighting.” Yet, due to limited manpower and large areas of coverage, it can be difficult to identify street lights that have gone out. With artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can automate the detection of faulty street lights and build digital twins of our roads to monitor proactively from our desktops.
Another huge part of the zero-accident conversation is autonomous vehicles, which may be one of the most widely talked-about technologies in the transportation industry—and rightly so. Autonomous vehicles are changing the way we think about getting from point A to point B. They could take human driver error out of the equation. Self-driving cars could potentially allow us to truly achieve zero roadway fatalities—but only if our infrastructure is prepared and properly managed.
What happens if an autonomous vehicle can’t see the lane striping? What would occur if the vehicle didn’t know that a pedestrian sign blew over?
These safety-critical questions are something we’ll need to be prepared for in a world where cars can drive themselves. Right now, our infrastructure isn’t prepared. On the 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, our country earned a C-, and study results show that 43% of our public roadways have remained in mediocre shape or worse for the past several years.
Our roads aren’t yet ready for autonomous vehicles, even though some researchers predict that this kind of technology could be widely available as early as 2023. In fact, some self-driving vehicles are already driving on roadways in cities like San Francisco and Phoenix.
What The Future Holds
By utilizing cameras, satellite images and dash cams inside of cars already on our roadways with other forms of data collection, USDOT can have near real-time insights on infrastructure conditions. These kinds of technologies can benefit the autonomous driving future, but the real advantages will be for the many drivers still navigating the roads themselves.
For example, if there’s a large piece of debris in the road that requires vehicles to swerve out of their lane to avoid it, USDOT currently must go find it manually or rely on public complaints. By the time the issue gets resolved, somebody could have hit the debris, or worse—an incident could have occurred. By harnessing technologies like machine vision and artificial intelligence, USDOT can be notified of the debris the second it enters a driving lane, and they can effectively clean it up.
If USDOT invests in artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, it will help ensure that our roadways are safe for current drivers and that we’re prepared for the quickly approaching autonomous future of driving. These technologies can identify critical safety issues so they can be fixed quickly and more efficiently.
The zero-accident vision is only a concept for now. Until we make the proper investments in the critical technological advancements needed, it will remain just an idea. Agencies should begin implementing the NRSS by investing in technologies that will ready our infrastructure for the future.
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