How ‘Cultural Novocain’ is Numbing Outrage to Traffic Fatalities

Earlier this month, four Lytx team members joined a workshop hosted by the National Safety Council (NSC) for its Road to Zero Coalition. The Coalition, comprising nearly 300 business, automotive, advocacy, government and education organizations, is driven by the objective to eliminate traffic fatalities within 30 years.

NSC President and CEO Deborah Hersman kicked off the workshop with some pointed words about how inured society has become to road fatalities – especially considering the road is the workplace for so many.

“Forty percent of workplace fatalities today are occurring on the road – why do we accept them?” said Hersman. “We have railroad safety, airline safety – why not road safety?”

She spoke about the slow and steady acceptance – what she calls “cultural Novocain” – that’s numbed society’s ability to recognize that 35,000 traffic fatalities are completely unacceptable.

“Our challenge as a society is creating a cultural shift,” she said. “We need more outrage, action, and commitment.”

Improving Safety: Taking a Cue from the Railroads

In 1920, Hersman said deaths and injuries on railroads peaked, with more than 2,500 on-duty fatalities and thousands more injuries. A combination of safety awareness and equipment innovations helped bring that number down to its current 14 fatalities per year.

Hersman said applying those same principles – safety awareness, augmented by innovation – can help the Road to Zero Coalition achieve its objective.

“Safety culture shifts slowly as people recognize the importance of safety,” she told workshop attendees. “You are safety sponsors – you’re people who get it. You will help improve safety, one policy, one company, and one person at a time.”

Hersman also spoke to innovation, saying that automation in driving will be a game-changer, but it comes with caveats.

“Automated technologies don’t replace human performance. They change it,” she said. Right now, Hersman said we are under siege by “thieves of attention” while behind the wheel, leading to what she referred to as “a deficit of vigilance.”

That vigilance is especially at risk when traditional driving tasks become automated, creating a whole new category of unsafe driving behaviors. As one of the workshop presenters said, quoting neurogonomics researcher Raja Parasuraman, “Those rarely required to respond, rarely respond when required.”

At Lytx, we’ve seen the escalation of distractions as the result of reliance on automated technologies, leading to collisions and near-collisions. That’s why we’ll continue to answer Hersman’s call to action by helping improve safety, one driver at a time.

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