Traffic fatalities have gone up for the first time in seven years, but the American public is less worried about dangerous driving habits than it was four years ago. Two associations try to make sense of the disconnect.
Americans are less worried about drivers’ dangerous behaviors like drinking and texting, despite an increase in traffic deaths, according to an analysis of four years of public surveys conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
“Motorists may be growing more complacent about potential safety risks behind the wheel,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, in a statement. “A ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude remains common, with many motorists consistently admitting to engaging in the same dangerous behaviors for which they would condemn other drivers.”
According to the study, there were more than 34,000 traffic deaths in 2012, up 5.3 percent from 2011. The numbers mark the first increase in seven years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed four years (2009–2012) of survey data collected for the annual Traffic Safety Culture Index, which tracks how the public’s perceptions of traffic safety issues change over time. The results reflect the responses from more than 11,000 surveys administered to Americans ages 16 and up.
According to the study, only 69 percent of people believe driving after drinking is a serious threat, down from 90 percent in 2009, and just 46 percent consider drowsy driving a serious threat, down from 71 percent. The percentage of those who think texting or emailing while driving is dangerous dropped from 87 percent to 81 percent.
The shift in public opinion isn’t keeping AAA from its efforts to keep drivers safe. Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research, said in a statement that there are “still too many needless fatalities,” and “it is clear that more must be done to address the dangers of drunk, aggressive, and drowsy driving to stem this concerning trend.”
“Truth be told, we don’t know exactly why more Americans appear to believe that certain risky behaviors are ‘less of a threat’ than they felt four years ago,” Kissinger told Forbes.com. “The results ‘may’ mean that Americans feel the risk has gone down or perhaps that they feel fewer are doing those risky behaviors; however, in most instance, we also saw an increase in self-reported behaviors.”
According to AAA, more than 2.3 million people annually suffer serious injuries from vehicular crashes, and on average, someone dies on America’s roadways every 15 minutes. It also states that car crashes kill more people in the U.S. ages 5 to 34 than any other cause of death.
“When highway fatalities go down, as they have until just very recently, there is less attention paid to it by the media, and people tend to feel like that problem has been solved,” Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, told The Washington Post. “Highway safety in general has always been difficult to make a big concern among the public despite the high numbers” of deaths.