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Minnesota traffic toll: Should safety take a back seat to privacy?

Courtesy of MnDOT
Minnesota sits in the large middle of the nation, a group of 29 states described as "advancing but [with] numerous gaps in its highway safety laws."

It’s just a snapshot in time, but Minnesota’s annual traffic fatality count showed a disturbing 40 percent increase last week over the same point last year. We shouldn’t read too much into a running total barely a month into 2014, but it certainly doesn’t argue against addressing a list of shortcomings in our state’s traffic laws recently pointed out by a national highway safety group.

Conrad DeFiebre

According to the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Minnesota needs improvement in these areas:

  • An all-rider motorcycle helmet law.
  • Raising the minimum age for a learner’s permit from 15 to 16 and to 18 for an unrestricted license.
  • A tougher nightime driving restriction for teens with graduated drivers’ licenses.
  • Required ignition interlocks for all drunken driving offenders.

When it comes to meeting the Advocates’ criteria, Minnesota sits in the large middle of the nation, a group of 29 states described as “advancing but [with] numerous gaps in its highway safety laws.” Eleven states are rated as “dangerously behind” and 10 others, plus the District of Columbia, are deemed “significantly advanced.”

For reasons I’ll discuss shortly, don’t hold your breath waiting for our lawmakers to do much about these alleged gaps. In fact, emerging crash-avoidance technology that got an important boost from federal authorities last week might do more to make motorways safer than any new laws. More on that, and what could stand in the way, later as well.

A chilling nationwide toll

Meanwhile, the nationwide toll from motor vehicle crashes remains chilling: Upwards of 30,000 killed and 2 million injured every year, costing more than $230 billion in losses to property, productivity and medical costs. This ongoing slaughter — 3.5 million lives lost in U.S. crashes since 1989 — is still the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 5 and 24.

“Every day over 90 people are killed on America’s streets and highways, and almost 6,500 are injured,” the Advocates, a group founded in 1989 by insurance companies along with consumer and safety proponents, noted. When foreign enemies do this to us, we go to war. When it’s our own bad driving, mostly we shrug.

Libertarian-leaning Minnesota isn’t likely to re-enact its short-lived motorcycle helmet law despite a federal estimate of 16 fewer deaths in 2012 if all the state’s two-wheel straddlers wore protective headgear. With our vast stretches of farms and forests, there will be strong rural resistance to raising the age when teens can learn to drive and get full adult privileges. And, in the very last state to adopt the national 0.08 percent blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving, the added costs of more ignition interlocks will be a tough sell.

It’s also interesting how Minnesotans can resist proven safety changes to roadway design if they have a chance of slowing anyone down. A fascinating recent article in the Mankato Free Press describes how a new median strip that created a 6½-mile no-passing zone on two-lane Hwy. 14 in southern Minnesota sharply reduced crashes, but still was roundly criticized.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s spokesman said the changes “defy common sense,” the manager of an area dairy plant called them “a waste,” and a trucking company executive said they would lead to more crashes on an adjacent stretch of the highway without a median. In fact, there have been no crashes on that stretch in the year-plus since the project was completed after there were eight in five previous years. In the project area, no injuries have been recorded since then, versus 18 crashes with injuries in six previous years.

What’s more, officials say, 95 percent of the $2.5 million project will be reused when the highway is widened to four lanes in 2016.

The emergence of smarter cars

These follies show why our best hope for safety and sanity on the roads may come not from smarter laws or highway design but from smarter cars “talking” to each other to head off collisions. That’s the promise of vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology (V2V), which has the been the subject of extensive pilot testing by the U.S. Department of Transportation for the past year and a half.

“V2V technology can address a large majority of crashes involving two or more motor vehicles,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced last week. “DOT testing is indicating interoperability of V2V technology among products from different vehicle manufacturers and suppliers and has demonstrated that they work in real-world environments.”

Soon to come is a NHTSA report on wide issues of feasibility, security, privacy, benefits and costs associated with the technology, and consideration of requiring the devices in all new vehicles at some point. But, according to an excellent summary of V2V prospects by Mark Mooney of World News, the full impact of even a federal mandate would be a long way off.

“It takes 20 years for the country’s fleet of cars to turn over,” David Wise, leader of a General Accounting Office V2V study, told Mooney. The GAO found that the cost of the basic technology would be “modest relative to the price of a new vehicle,” but ensuring its privacy and security from hackers could add significant expense.

 As the ongoing debates over phone spying and taxing drivers by the mile rather than the gallon of fuel show, Americans tend to care more about privacy than their safety and security. V2V would likely employ global positioning technology to record and broadcast a car’s speed and position in real time and warn drivers when trouble lurks. Proposals for vehicle-miles-traveled fees based on GPS have run into persistent privacy concerns.

Data recorders

It’s still a good question how much privacy a driver is entitled to on public thoroughfares, but that hasn’t dented an apparent consensus that the data on another kind of emerging automotive gizmo — event data recorders, or so-called crash “black boxes” — belong only to the car owner. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is cosponsoring a bill to codify that understanding in law, allowing crash investigators to access the black box in most instances only with a court order.

V2V has great potential to make driving safer and more efficient in the long run, provided we can keep out of our own way with overblown worries about privacy on the road.

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This commentary originally appeared on its website.


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schmitz on 02/10/2014 - 04:16 pm.


    The requirement of a warrant, which conceivably is constitutional requirement, is minimal for an investigator.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/10/2014 - 04:27 pm.

    Avoid It

    A V2V system sounds like a step in the right direction, but what I’m really waiting for are the driverless cars like Goggle’s project. If lawmakers (and advocates) really want to work on something, that would be the place to start. They need to address issues like who’s liable when a car inevitably gets into an accident. Will a car be allowed to drive itself to a location without any human at all on board, which would really help car sharing services. They might even bring back full service gas stations as the car pulls up to the pump sans people to get refilled.

    Let’s face the facts here, folks: humans are the weak link in the transportation chain. The sooner we get out of the mix the safer we will be.

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