Last week, the preliminary tally of the number of deaths due to traffic accidents on America’s highways was released by the federal agency that keeps track of this sort of thing, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). And the numbers are scary.
During the first half of 2015, there was an 8.1% jump in fatalities compared with the year before (2014). While the final study has not been released, the agency has already issued its news of these preliminary findings with serious warnings about what this may mean for the next few months.
Read the NHTSA report, “Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities for the First Half (Jan – Jun) of 2015,” here.
After all, we’re going into the severe weather months for our part of the country now — winter weather conditions in Indiana and Illinois make driving on our expressways and interstates especially dangerous. That’s true for all drivers, but especially for those who are driving alongside those big, heavy commercial trucks (big rigs, semis, tractor-trailer trucks).
“These numbers are a call to action. Everyone with a responsibility for road safety – the federal, State and local governments, law enforcement, vehicle manufacturers, safety advocates and road users – needs to reassess our efforts to combat threats to safety. USDOT will redouble our efforts on safety and we expect our partners to do the same.”
Why So Many More Fatalities? Maybe More Cars on the Road
Why this sudden increase in fatal car crashes? Answers to that question haven’t been solidified yet; after all, these are preliminary findings not the final analysis. However, given that 2014 was heralded as the safest year for driving since 1975 (at least for people driving passenger cars), it’s shocking to many that this spike in fatalities has happened.
Drunk-driving? The numbers show that the percentage of traffic accident fatalities due to a driver operating his or her vehicle under the influence remains at around 33% of the total traffic deaths.
Failing to wear a seat belt? Ditto. The percentage of fatal accidents due to the victim failing to wear a safety belt has not changed much from year to year.
Other factors here, like distracted driving or speeding? They are contributing factors in many highway accident fatalities but none of these causes can be singled out as a reason for the jump in highway deaths in 2015.
Maybe one reason that there has been a spike in the number of deaths on America’s highways in car crashes is because there are more people driving on the roads.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, more vehicles are being driven on our highways now than before. More people drove more miles in September 2015 than in any other month since they began keeping these records (259.9 million miles). And, the FHA reports that January 2015 saw a jump in the number of driven miles of 4.9%, and in September 2015, that single-month percentage jump was almost as high, at 4.3%.
Winter Weather Driving Conditions and Highway Accident Deaths
Remember last February, when much of Indiana (along with Ohio and some other neighboring states) was hit with a blizzard so fierce that snow was blowing in winds of 40 mph? It was a whiteout that made the national news.
In that weather event, the officials were out closing highways and expressways and interstates — but not before there were tragic accidents where people died trying to drive vehicles through that whiteout.
In a whiteout, you just can’t see. The snow and the wind and the cloud cover create an atmosphere where the driver isn’t able to see what’s ahead of him or her.
Factors That Can Contribute to a Winter Weather Car Crash
There are other serious winter weather conditions besides whiteouts that can create great danger for those driving vehicles here in Indiana and Illinois. Winter weather increases the likelihood of a serious traffic accident in many ways, including:
- Driving that is hampered by the driver not being able to see much of the road ahead due to snow,hail or fog;
- Drivers not able to control their vehicle because of high winds (this is particularly dangerous for big rigs and fully loaded semis as well as vehicles prone to rollover like minivans and some SUVs);
- Vehicles may malfunction because of below-freezing temperatures that have held constant for a period of time;
- A properly functioning car or truck or minivan may still be vulnerable to things like an inability to gain traction on the road surface because of ice or sleet; and
- The amount of traffic sharing the road during the winter weather and the speed with which the traffic is moving.
According to FHA, 23% of all motor vehicle accidents in this country are weather-related crashes, where the accident happens in severe weather (rain, snow, sleet, fog, high winds, blowing snow, etc.) or on slick pavement (icy, snow, rain). Almost all these weather-related accidents (74%) are reported to happen on pavement wet from rain, snow, or sleet.
Act of God Defense or Legal Liability for a Weather-Related Crash and Traffic Fatality?
Many insurance adjusters and defense lawyers will point to the skies and argue that all these accidents are either due to an “Act of God” or driver error, and that there is no other party that can be held legally liable for a weather-related traffic crash, even a tragic one that results in someone’s death.
However, that is not accurate. All too often, crash investigations will reveal contributing factors that point to the negligence (mistake) of a party (person, company, agency) or even to intentional misconduct (product defect, drunk driving, etc.) that have resulted in the fatal accident.
In these situations, personal injury claims and wrongful death suits may be necessary in order for these victims to receive justice. More on that in our next post.
Winter is here! Please be careful as you drive in these bad road conditions, especially on our Indiana and Illinois interstates, highways, and expressways! Be careful out there!