Can tech make the roads safer?

Traffic in Los Angeles, March 25, 2013. Artificial intelligence and other advances in traffic systems hold promise to ease commuters’ headaches but some say to increase safety the solution must come from cars themselves. (Photo: NYTimes)
When the pandemic kept people at home more in 2020, Americans drove far fewer miles than usual. But more people died on the roads.

Our roads are dangerous, particularly for pedestrians. I have been curious whether having more technology to enforce traffic laws might help — or whether it would make things worse.اضافة اعلان

I’m reminded of this every time I see reckless driving where I live in New York. (And there is some evidence that this is increasing.) Part of me wants cameras everywhere to blitz drivers with tickets for running red lights or speeding. But I’m also wary of mass surveillance.

I talked about this with Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. She said that, in the short term, more automated traffic enforcement could make our roads safer and reduce potentially biased police stops of motorists.

Longer term, however, Kaufman believes that the best technologies to make our roads safer are those that take choices out of people’s hands. That includes vehicles that are programmed to force people to obey speed limits and brake at red lights.

Yes, she knows that some people will hate this. But, she said, we should not be complacent about the deaths and injuries on America’s roads, and instead rethink what we consider normal about driving.

Let’s backtrack to the problem: Cars have become safer for people inside them over the years, but the number of people who died on roads last year in the United States still reached as many as 42,000, according to preliminary data from an advocacy group. That was higher than the deaths in 2019, and the numbers weren’t an anomaly. Risks have generally increased for pedestrians, motorcyclists, and others who are not inside vehicles.

Kaufman made a couple of points about the ways that technology can help make us safer, as well as some of its limits.

First, receiving a ticket in the mail after a camera snaps an image of you speeding or running a red light in your car can be a relatively effective deterrent, but it’s not perfect.

In New York and some other places, traffic tickets from cameras arrive about a month after the infraction. A ticket might make someone think twice about speeding the next time, said Kaufman, who called camera enforcement highly beneficial. But, she said, it didn’t prevent the risky driving in the first place.

A New York Times opinion column recently said cameras that capture speeding drivers or expired license plate tags could also reduce the police traffic stops that tended to disproportionately affect Black drivers, and sometimes resulted in violence and even death. (The encounter that led to a police officer in Minnesota fatally shooting Daunte Wright started with a traffic stop.)

Black Americans are also at a higher risk of dying from vehicle crashes, and Kaufman said that more automated traffic enforcement could help address what she called the dual problems of “overpolicing and underprotection.”

But, Kaufman said that in the long run, the best road safety technologies were those that removed human judgment. She imagines more cities and car manufacturers setting technology that automatically forces drivers to obey the speed limit and brake at red lights.

Some cities require speed restrictions be built into rented scooters and electric bicycles.

“Why is the deadliest mode of travel not speed limited?” Kaufman asked.

Although she believes her suggestion may make some people howl at restrictions on what they can do with their own cars, Kaufman said: “People are dying as the result of some people not following the rules. Why is that a fair system?”

It always makes me nervous when technology is proposed as a fix for human-created problems. Some road safety advocates have pushed for other changes not involving technology, such as redesigned roads, more enforcement of seat belt use, rules for safer, smaller cars, and moving away from our dependence on cars. And yes, Kaufman and I talked about autonomous cars. They promise to be far safer but are unlikely to hit the roads in large numbers for many years.

Ultimately, in Kaufman’s view, what’s needed are both limits on what we can do with cars and a rethinking of automobiles’ role in American life.

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