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Lessons from the Nash Crash

by Roger Lanctot | 6月 06, 2015

The death of mathematician Dr. John Nash Jr. (of “A Beautiful Mind” fame) and his wife Alicia in a crash on the New Jersey Turnpike last week highlighted the misguided leadership of the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and threatens to serve as a setback rather than an opportunity to learn and progress automotive safety. Dr. Alain Kornhauser, director of the Transportation Program at Princeton University called attention to this reality in his SmartDrivingCars newsletter (http://www.smartdrivingcar.com/).

The Nashes were ejected from their taxi and declared dead at the scene of the crash. Kornhauser pointedly notes that the NYTimes, in the wake of the fatal crash, quoted experts on the importance of wearing seatbelts. Missing, says Kornhauser, was any recognition that the taxi was not equipped with available automated stability control, lane keeping or collision avoidance systems.

“This was not an accident,” he writes. “It was a failed public safety policy that refuses to move beyond crash mitigation and its challenged ‘V2x’ initiatives to embrace forthright automated crash avoidance.”

He further lambastes the failed taxi regulatory structure that eschews safety concerns in favor of impeding the progress of Uber, which, not coincidentally, is working on self-driving car technology.

Dr. Kornhauser is correct to be outraged, as am I. The V2x technology to which Dr. Kornhauser refers is the technology the Obama administration and DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx are seeking to “fast-track” toward a mandated adoption and that won’t save a single life for more than a decade - if it can, in fact, be proven to work at all.

Meanwhile, the auto industry and its allies in the insurance industry (manifested in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) and the DOT continue to ignore solutions such as lane keeping and collision avoidance that are capable of saving lives today. The NYTimes' focus on the use of safety belts only rubs salt into the wound by suggesting that the Nashes are somehow to blame for their own deaths.

The placing of blame on the driver or passenger harks back to the earliest decades of the auto industry – including up until the early 1960’s – when car maker routinely blamed vehicle crashes and related injuries and fatalities on bad driving. In fact, the emergence of usage-based insurance programs being promoted by the likes of Progressive, State Farm and Allstate are keeping with this blame the driver angle.

The Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were formed in the mid-1960’s in direct response to the industry’s blame-the-driver strategy. When it became clear – as outlined by Ralph Nader in his book “Unsafe at Any Speed” – that car makers themselves bore substantial responsibility for vehicle crashes and the resulting injuries and fatalities the government saw fit to step in and begin regulating the industry. (For more, read “Car Safety Wars.”)

The focus, from the start, was on mitigating the injuries and fatalities resulting from car crashes. But in the past five years, under NHTSA’s previous director, Ray LaHood, the agency announced its intention to shift the focus to avoiding crashes altogether.

Seatbelts and airbags were the original tools for mitigating injuries and fatalities that NHTSA helped mid-wife. The agency has more recently added the widespread adoption of stability control to its contributions in this area - all of which have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, according to NHTSA's own estimates.

The agency has more recently focused on backup cameras and distraction mitigation. But these efforts may have distracted NHTSA from progressing more forthrightly toward promoting lane keeping and automated collision avoidance.

With research dollars at risk, the agency has, instead, doubled down on its vehicle-to-X wireless communications development efforts – leaving more proven, fundamental and less expensive technologies to languish. The bottom line is that we have the technologies today that can mitigate or prevent vehicle crashes such as the one that took the life of the Nashes.

It is time for NHTSA and the DOT to get real and fast-track the promotion and adoption of proven technologies and de-emphasize and de-fund pie-in-the-sky wireless technology likely to be surpassed and supplanted long before it can be proven. And, really, it’s time to stop blaming drivers and passengers for being killed in preventable crashes.

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