An overwhelming majority of motorists - 83 percent - are concerned about safety on the nation's roads, but that hasn't dissuaded them from engaging in risky behavior while behind the wheel.
Research to research released Wednesday by the National Safety Council and AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that high numbers of drivers of all ages are comfortable with speeding, running red lights, texting (either manually or with voice controls), and driving while imparied by alcohol or drugs.
It's a startling finding, researchers say, and likely a big contributing factor as the number of motor vehicle deaths jumped to more than 40,200 last year, a 6 percent increase over the previous year according to preliminary data. That number is also up 14 percent over the 35,398 recorded in 2014 marking the most dramatic two-year escalation in 53 years.
Ironically, survey respondents listed distracted driving, drugged driving, aggressive driving, drunken driving and speeding as their top safety concerns, yet they are exactly the risky behaviors drivers admit to doing while behind the wheel.
"That is not causing them to adopt safer behavior. The results are killing us," said the National Safety Council's president and CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman. "The public is not changing its behavior. Where is the outcry at losing 100 people per day? Forty thousand can not be the new norm."
Minnesota recorded 398 deaths in 2016 based on preliminary numbers compared with 409 in 2015, the Department of Public Safety reported.
AAA called out millenials as the "worst behaved U.S. drivers" and that's because 88 percent of those 19 to 24 admitted to speeding, red light running or texting behind the wheel in the past 30 days.
“Alarmingly, some of the drivers ages 19-24 believe that their dangerous driving behavior is acceptable,” said Dr. David Yang, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety executive director. “It’s critical that these drivers understand the potentially deadly consequences of engaging in these types of behaviors and that they change their behavior and attitudes in order to reverse the growing number of fatalities on U.S. roads.”
Older drivers were not exactly saints, the studies found.
More than 10 percent of drivers between 60 and 74 have texted or sent email from behind the wheel, while 37 percent of drivers over 75 said they'd driven through a light that had just turned red even through they could have easily stopped. Of those between 25 and 39, 60 percent have read an email or text while driving and 50 percent have typed and sent an email or text message.
A large percentage of drivers (83 percent) believe that they drive somewhat or much more
carefully than other drivers and only 0.7 percent of driver felt they were less careful than others on the road, the AAA study found.
Though the number of vehicle miles traveled has increased and does play a factor into the uptick in traffic fatalities over the past two years, more than 94 percent of crashes are related to human choices, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.
"The trend is clear: after years of progress, highway deaths are heading in the wrong direction," said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "Three predominant factors contributing to traffic deaths are still belts, booze and speed. Additionally, driver distraction and our society's addiction to electronic devices is likely playing a role in the increase in deaths."
The good news, Adkins said, is that high visibility enforcement of strong traffic laws coupled with public education and awareness can reverse the disturbing trend.
Hersman says "there has to be a call for action." The National Safety Council is calling for immediate implementation of life-saving measures that would set the nation on a road to zero deaths:
- Mandate ignition interlocks for convicted drunk drivers and better education about the nature of impairment and when it begins
- Install and use automated enforcement techniques to catch speeders
- Extend laws banning all cell phone use – including hands-free – to all drivers, not just teens; upgrade enforcement from secondary to primary in states with existing bans
- Upgrade seat belt laws from secondary to primary enforcement and extend restraint laws to every passenger in every seating position in all kinds of vehicles
- Adopt a three-tiered licensing system for all new drivers under 21 – not just those under 18
- Standardize and accelerate into the fleet automotive safety technologies with life-saving potential, including blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and adaptive headlights
- Pass or reinstate motorcycle helmet laws
- Adopt comprehensive programs for pedestrian safety