Posts Tagged ‘Auto crashes’

Yes, Jennifer, It Really Is Human Error!

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

Jennifer Homendy is upset.

The Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is rippin’ mad, because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that human error is a significant factor in 94% of auto crashes. This is how she put it on Twitter:


Sorry, Ms. Homendy, but it’s more true than not. Human error always has been, is now, and will continue to be a major contributing factor to motor vehicle crashes. This is true in nearly all cases. It’s even true when a crash happens just because of lack of preventive maintenance. Think skidding into a pole on bald tires. It’s true in a two-car crash when one party does everything right and nothing wrong. Think being rear-ended at a traffic light. Somebody makes a mistake, and, regrettably, sometimes others have to pay.

There are so many ways for human beings to contribute to things going bad on the road. Take talking on a cell phone. Epidemiological research has found that cell-phone use is associated with a four-fold increase in the odds of getting into an accident. David Strayer, Ph.D., of the Applied Cognition Laboratory at the University of Utah, has studied cell-phone impact for more than five years. In one of his studies, when drivers talked on a cell phone, their reactions to imperative events (such as braking for a traffic light or a decelerating vehicle) were significantly slower than when they were not talking on the cell phone.

Ms. Homendy is right about one thing, though. Crashes are “complex.” That’s why local police, Highway Patrol officers, state troopers, etc., take in-depth training classes to learn how to investigate them. And in most cases they find human error involved. I’m speaking from experience.

In the mid-1970s, I was the Director of Safety and Health for the U. S. Army on the east coast. I was the Principal Guest Lecturer at the Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama. I knew more soldiers died in auto crashes than on the battlefield. I also knew their driver training was abysmal. Crashes happened during emergencies, but, unlike other areas of training, soldiers weren’t taught how to handle driving emergencies. Nobody was. I wanted to correct this by building Emergency Driving Centers on every Army base, and I got the Army Chief of Staff to agree to a pilot at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

To my everlasting regret, I learned that just because something is approved at the highest level does not mean it will  be funded. And that’s what happened. No funding, no Emergency Driving Centers. Not even the pilot. That was a hard lesson. But in the process auto safety became my specialty, at least back then, and I investigated a lot of horrible crashes.

The only crashes I ever saw, and the only kind of crashes ever reported through my office where human error was not a leading or important factor, were crashes attributed to severe and sudden weather events, such as black ice on a road, a quick forming and violent snowstorm, or an abrupt cloudburst downpour.

The number one contributing factor in fatal and non-fatal crashes was speed.

However, a couple of things were happening in the mid-1970s that would change the equation in a highly positive way: Automotive safety engineering and the beginnings of seat belt design and usage (something I played a role in, but that’s a story for another day). Let’s look at what’s happened since.

In 1975, there were 130,906,113 registered vehicles on U.S. roads. The population was 216 million.

In 2020, there were 275,924,442 registered vehicles on U.S. roads. The population was 333 million.

In 1975, 39,161 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. resulted in 44,525 deaths.

In 2019, 33,244 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. resulted in 36,096 deaths.

Please, think about that for a moment. Despite the U.S. population growing by 54% since 1975, the rate of crash deaths per 100,000 population is about half what it was then. This is a tremendous accomplishment, and is due primarily to safer roads, safer cars and seat belt usage (which in 1975 was woeful). What it is not due to is safer driving, but it appears Jennifer Homendy wants us to think it is.

What got her going is a 2015 NHTSA figure from a statistical summary within a Traffic Safety Facts data sheet. The sheet can be misleading, in that it says driver error is a “critical reason” for a crash in 94% of the cases. Here is how the agency defines “critical reason:”

Critical Reasons for the Critical Pre‑Crash Event
The critical reason is the immediate reason for the critical pre-crash event
and is often the last failure in the causal chain of events leading up to the
crash. Although the critical reason is an important part of the description
of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the
cause of the crash nor as the assignment of the fault to the driver, vehicle,
or environment.

The wording can certainly be improved. You have a “critical reason” for a crash, but you’re not supposed to interpret the “critical reason” as “the cause” of the crash.

This data sheet has been around for nearly seven years, and it probably would have remained in happy oblivion if not for a big and unexplained spike in fatal crashes during the first half of 2021, which NHTSA highlighted in an October 2021 News Release in which it dropped the 94% figure. The agency, under the leadership of Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, wants to marshal the forces, study this unhappy development, and do what it can to combat a phenomenon no one wants to see as becoming a trend.

Ms. Homendy, Chair of the NTSB since last August, takes issue with the News Release. I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible this paragraph may be the offending section:

“The report is sobering. It’s also a reminder of what hundreds of millions of people can do every day, right now, to combat this: Slow down, wear seat belts, drive sober, and avoid distractions behind the wheel,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator Dr. Steven Cliff. “All of us must work together to stop aggressive, dangerous driving and help prevent fatal crashes.”

In response to Ms. Homendy’s ire, the NHTSA says it will do what it can to make its position more clear. Regardless, it is critical that we continue to engineer safer cars and roads. As history shows, we can do that, and we can do it well.

However, the way we train drivers hasn’t changed in 50 years, and it was poor then. To this day, when a driver confronts an emergency on the road it’s a totally new experience with often predictable and tragic results.