Traffic fatalities? There's an app for that

Technology in vehicles is becoming a double-edged sword and it can both create a distraction that leads to crashes as well as provide a level of protection from our human fallibility

Most people are poor at judging risk. While they may be fearful of crime and claim they would not drive in certain areas of some cities in Pennsylvania, they think nothing of getting in their car and driving most other places. Yet for most Americans, driving in a motor vehicle is the riskiest activity they engage in on a daily basis.

Consider the death toll that routinely occurs in the highways of Pennsylvania and across the nation. In Pennsylvania last year, 1,200 people were killed and 80,004 people suffered injuries in motor vehicle crashes. And this statistic was greeted as "great news" because it represented the second-lowest fatality rate since 1935. Nationwide, the news was not so great, as the number of fatalities jumped the largest amount since 1966.

The first six months of this year look equally ominous, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reporting a more than 10 percent increase from last year with 17,775 deaths. Safety experts are all raising the alarm, but it is unclear how to best address the issue.

It's all negligence

The vast majority of vehicle crashes have one single cause: driver error. More bluntly, it's all negligence. The difficulty in dealing with the problem is that while driver error is the cause, the ways that negligence manifests itself is limited only by the ingenuity of individuals. People can drive while intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, they can drive when fatigued or exhausted, they can drive too fast for road conditions and weather.

Any activity that causes driver inattention and distracts can lead to a deadly vehicle crash. Whether changing a radio station, eating food from a drive through, attempting to shave or put on makeup or reading newspapers or a report for an important business meeting, drivers have long engaged in behavior that takes their mind off the road and the traffic surrounding them, and that creates those seconds of opportunity when driving to work school or the store can go from routine and unremarkable to catastrophic and life-changing. In the worst scenarios, it is life ending.

Apps up the game

In a moment of cold reflection, few would argue that taking your attention away from the road in front of your vehicle is a good idea. At highway speeds, your vehicle is traveling at more than 100 feet per second. We know, intuitively, that a great many things can happen in the two or three seconds when we glance down at the radio, a cup of coffee, advertising brochure or map.

But we do it anyway. And most of the time we are lucky. Nothing bad happens. We arrive at work, school or home unscathed. Now, however, there is something else to distract us beyond those old-fashioned distractions. We may not have always have food, or reading material or makeup in the car, but how many times do you get into your vehicle without your phone?

It's really not a phone

Sure, you can make calls and speak with a person on the other end, but for many, that is the least of its utility. What is more enticing and infinitely attractive about that electronic device is that it is vastly more than a phone. It is a pocketable computer with hundreds of thousands of apps that make it do virtually whatever you want. Play games, watch movies, record videos, check your Facebook page, send an Instagram and Snapchat or anything else available in the App Store.

Because they are always with us, infinitely varied and ever changing, these devices are irresistible. Some research has even found that behavior such a sending texts stimulate fundamental functions of the brain, meaning their use is addictive in the same manner as a drug.

Will technology save us from technology?

The ultimate salvation from this desirable technology is the technology of autonomous vehicles. Those vehicles would eliminate the human driver entirely, allowing passengers to sleep, read or update Facebook without any negative consequences.

Unfortunately, in light of the increasing highway fatalities, this innovation may eventually arrive, but it may be years or decades into the future. The technology is simply not mature enough to take all of the driving duties from a human. But there is hope.

Vehicles are now being equipped with technology that may not completely handle all of the driving, but it may be able to step in and "watch over our shoulders" while we drive, waking us when we nod off, keeping us in our lane and providing emergency braking when our mind wanders off.