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2016: A Look Back


The end of the year is a good time for a retrospective of the best and biggest stories of 2016…that involve driving. Here are three top newsmakers that we covered this year:

Drunk driving has been a story for decades, but the real story is how much fatalities for the under-21-year-old crowd have declined. Since 1982, fatalities for drivers under 21 years old due to alcohol impairment have decreased by 79%. The rate of under 21 drunk driving fatalities per 100,000 population has declined 46% over the past decade. Still, one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the U.S. are due to alcohol impairment according to the Centers for Disease Control.

While drunk driving fatalities have decreased, driving while under the influence of marijuana has become more common since the legalization of marijuana in more states. After Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2013, marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 32% in one year, according to the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area enforcement initiative. Fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana doubled in Washington after the state legalized the drug, according to the latest research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. These findings are particularly troublesome given that Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C. had legalized recreational use of marijuana prior to 2016, and California, Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts voted to make recreational use of marijuana legal in 2016. With no scientific or political consensus on the level of THC that impairs a driver, the ability to regulate the roads and enforce sobriety is limited.

Distracted driving has become the newest killer in the under-21-year-old driver category. In 2014, 3,179 people were killed and 431,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. According to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA), 10% of all drivers under 20 years old involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crashes. Although the term “distracted driving” encompasses a wide range of activities behind the wheel such as putting on make-up, playing music, eating, attending to children in the back seat, engaging with passengers, etc, the overwhelming culprit in driver distraction is electronic mobile devices. An astounding 660,000 drivers use cell phones or other electronic devices while driving at any given daylight moment.

Although not technically a driving phenomenon, distracted walking is a related trend that has come to the foreground due to the prevalence of the cell phone in our society. Petextrians, as texting pedestrians are now called, are blamed for the 15% increase in pedestrian fatalities since 2009. According to the NHTSA, pedestrian injuries reached 78,000 in 2012—the highest number since 2001—which means one death every 2 hours and an injury every 7 minutes. People who use their cell phones while walking and crossing streets to talk or text not only endanger themselves, but they endanger drivers and other pedestrians as well, since drivers may crash into other vehicles or people in an attempt to avoid a petextrian crossing at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Distracted walking has become such a problem that some cities have run ad campaigns about it, lowered speed limits at busy intersections, and even imposed fines for cell phone use while crossing streets.

Another technological story that dominated 2016 was the progress of the autonomous vehicle. Although it is generally believed that the widespread adoption of fully automated cars will not occur for another 15-20 years, big steps were made in technological and legal arenas. Tesla led the way with the announcement of fully-autonomous hardware in all of its vehicles, with the software to follow in 2018. This was welcome progress after Tesla suffered the first autonomous vehicle fatality in 2016. The U.S. Department of Transportation rolled out guidelines for autonomous vehicles, finally beginning to address the legal ramifications of this new entity on the road. And then there was Uber’s Pittsburgh Project, where driverless cars were let loose on public roads…almost. Uber ran a pilot project in the rust-belt city with a fleet of cars driven by computers, with drivers ready to take the wheels, and navigators sitting in the passenger seats holding computers recording data from multiple sensors. Offering free rides to people requesting an Uber, the autonomous vehicles appear randomly and have for the most part been welcomed by customers.

For more on these big stories of 2016, see our previous blogs. For the big stories of 2017 yet to come, keep following The Thomas Law Firm blog. Have a Happy New Year!

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