The 13 Real Traffic Safety Questions We Should Be Asking

What 13 questions about American traffic safety should we be really asking? And how can we answer them and save lives?

The 13 Real Traffic Safety Questions We Should Be Asking

Happy New Year (a little late) and we hope 2021 will be a better year in all ways! This year marks the 11th year of Driving in the Real World® as a blog (which simply boggles my mind) and a time to reflect back and look forward on traffic safety questions.

Over the past decade, I have helped strengthen driver training, testing, and licensing standards in Washington State and was nationally recognized by NHTSA in 2017 and Washington State’s Traffic Safety Commission for this work. That work involved, along with another citizen advocate, co-organizing and leading a fact-finding trip to the UK in 2016 so that several officials from Washington State government and the driver training industry could learn about Britain’s traffic safety ecosystem, widely acknowledged as one of the best in the world. You can learn more on this DIPOD podcast episode and in Part I and II in the Intelligent Instructor magazine.

In 2017, I started penning a monthly column on traffic safety for Roundel, the national magazine of the BMW Car Club of America. Currently, I serve on the Safety Subcommittee of the Washington State Autonomous Vehicle Work Group, helping shape strategy and education around ADAS and AV technologies.

In the course of this work over the years, I’ve been astounded by the paradoxical situations—and conundrums—in the American traffic safety scene that are often not acknowledged or even questioned:

•  Why is the US, out of the top 20 developed nations with comparable infrastructure and economic status, rank 18th in road fatalities per billion kilometers traveled? And 34th in road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, below Serbia, Morocco, and Moldova? Or 36th out of 40 top countries charting a percentage change in traffic fatalities between 2010 and 2018 (unfortunately, with negative progress)?

•  Why do we in America accept nearly 40,000 fatalities and 4.4 million serious injuries annually without much fuss or outcry?

The 13 Real Traffic Safety Questions We Should Be Asking

•  We broadly assume the meaning of “safety” and “safe driving,” which leads to inadvertent, deleterious flaws in well-intentioned private sector and US government programs such as Vision Zero.

•  Why hasn’t new driver education in America been updated since the 1940s? Automobiles, technology, law enforcement, laws, roads—everything else has but DE hasn’t. Consistently among the top 10 nations with the lowest traffic fatalities—such as Sweden, Norway, and the UK—DE and testing standards are extremely well-developed and rigorous.

•  Why do we require 25 to 30 hours on average of classroom or online training, only 8 to 10 hours behind the wheel with a professional driving instructor, and 30 to 50 hours of practice driving with a parent or licensed adult, the latter based on an honor system with no mandatory verification and a model that leaves the bulk of on-road training to people who themselves may be poor drivers? And more than 45 states allow no driver training to be required at all once a person turns the magical age of 18.

The 13 Real Traffic Safety Questions We Should Be Asking

•  Why is road safety so often portrayed as a character flaw when the vast majority of crashes are the result of everyday drivers doing nonreckless, everyday things?

•  Why don’t we train drivers on common vision deficiencies such as saccades and windscreen zoning, which are taught to jet fighter pilots? Simple vision techniques could help avert many road conflicts and crashes.

•  Why is speeding overpenalized when it is not even reported as a factor in 60 to 74 percent of fatalities and yet driver recognition error plays a role in about 40 percent of crashes, according to NHTSA in 2017?

The 13 Real Traffic Safety Questions We Should Be Asking

•  How we measure traffic safety shouldn’t lie in the absence of fatalities; it should be in the presence of competencies.

•  We often overemphasize data on serious injuries and fatalities, ignoring the much larger iceberg of near-misses—and the psychology and social sciences behind them.

•  We wring our hands over the alarming rise in American pedestrian injuries and deaths, but there is little acknowledgment of the role of SUVs and larger vehicles contributing to this issue, as well as the failings by both the automotive industry and US federal agencies to regulate such vehicles to make them safer for nonvehicular road users as they are in Europe. Considering that these vehicles now make up nearly 70 percent of new-vehicle sales in the US, this issue warrants serious attention.

•  Why haven’t we put a dent in smartphone distracted driving by creating campaigns that truly work? Perhaps we don’t want to accept that it’s often not a matter of mere willpower or perceived character weaknesses, but the physiological cravings of our brains wired for connection. We need to be realistic about this fact.

The 13 Real Traffic Safety Questions We Should Be Asking

•  Why do so many traffic safety campaigns emphasize the punitive and fail to acknowledge the majority of drivers who do the right thing—and shouldn’t we empower them to be role models? Wouldn’t a better approach be to suggest what we do want and encourage positive behaviors?

I’m mighty curious about the answers to these traffic safety questions. Perhaps, as driver trainers, traffic safety industry professionals, automotive enthusiasts, pedestrians, cyclists, and any other kind of road user (which pretty much includes all of us), you might be too.

Let’s start thinking, talking, and actually doing something about this.

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Mi Ae Lipe

Mi Ae Lipe is a citizen advocate living near Seattle, Washington. She blogs on Driving in the Real World, Tweets daily driving news and tips at @DrivingReal, and writes a regular column on street driving for BMW CCA’s Roundel magazine. She frequently collaborates with government organizations, NGOs, and individuals. She and fellow citizen Mark Butcher are recipients of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 2017 Award for Public Service for their work in


  1. Excellent article, very informative and helpful! I hope many can get a chance to read this blog as this is big help to ensure safety when driving in fog. This kind of situation is a great reminder that it is really important to take driving courses to broaden our knowledge and awareness about driving to ensure your safety and everyone on the road.

  2. These are great points. I live in Washington too and there is a lot that I appreciate about the driver’s education system and some things I hope improve.

  3. These are all excellent questions, and ones that should be seriously addressed by organizations that promote and govern driving licensing and safety. Unfortunately, I imagine there are many, with no overarching national set of standards for highway and driver safety. I spent some time in Austria and was impressed with the competence and courtesy of drivers there. New drivers are required to take a certified driving course and pass a rigorous examination before being licensed, and those courses do not come cheap! I think there are a couple of factors that contribute to the lack of good answers to your questions.

    We Americans highly prize our liberty and freedoms, and we resist laws or norms that restrict them. We give individual states the right to determine their own licensing and examination requirements, and we resist requirements that would mandate more comprehensive training and licensing. We are confident in our ability to train our own children, even though traffic statistics don’t back up that confidence.

    Driving behavior norms and common courtesy are not sufficiently adhered to or enforced. Too many of us feel just fine driving as we wish and letting others compensate for our driving in whatever way they want. One example is not moving to the right to allow faster traffic to pass, causing others to pass on the right; a maneuver that is more hazardous. Another is drivers who inordinately slow or stop at intersections or areas of merging traffic even though they have the right of way. This creates confusion and indecision in other drivers who expect them to exercise their right of way and move on.

    As a nation, we simply don’t have the will to set and enforce better standards for safe driving and more stringent licensing. It isn’t that important to us. Our personal preferences and freedom are more important. Changing these beliefs will require fostering a much more compliant and accommodating attitude among the driving public. Driving should be about getting along with other drivers and pedestrians at all times, and not about competing with other drivers.

  4. As a driving instructor, I too believe that currently the time in car with a certified instructor is far less than what is needed. What I also see though is a disregard of the rules of the road, traffic safety laws and courtesy, by our “experienced licensed drivers.” Day in and day out, I see people running red lights, rolling around right turns at a red light, stopping over the stopping lines, speeding, driving left of centre, tailgating… the list goes on. There are no consequences, short of being in a collision… the police aren’t out actively monitoring traffic issues, issuing tickets, in fact locally, I see them doing a lot of these same things. It is very frustrating!

  5. I very much agree. We as a nation should be outraged at the number of fatalities and serious injuries that occur every year. Distracted driving is a huge problem, drive down any busy multi lane highway today and you will see at least 1 car moving left to right trying to stay between the lines, someone using their cell phone while driving. Even if we have to shut down cell phone use while driving(at least texting), something needs to be done. Our drivers ed. programs are archaic, they need to be upgraded as soon as possible. Our way of thinking about driving safely needs to change. I have heard way more than 1 parent of a new to driving teen, after that teen has been involved in an accident, say ‘well they are new so we expected an accident’! This way of thinking is wrong, and has to change. No accident should be expected. Also our tv commercials from auto makers should be changed. They show people backing out of driveways, or driving down the road, not paying attention!! Then the auto maker shows their accident avoidance systems saving them. It’s like they are trying to teach us to rely on their system, or, it’s ok to be a little distracted, heck everyone’s busy!! This needs to change.

  6. Mi Ae: Has any good research been done connecting drivers ignoring traffic management rules & signs with adverse events? I see moderate speed stop sign rolls & ignoring of “No Right Turn on Red” – turns in motion every trip out. Who is studying this?

    • A proper way to pose this question Bruce. The data surely exist, but ‘good research’ work to build understandings from it is clearly needed.

  7. I couldn’t agree more. We need much more vibrant driver education including a lot more wheel time. Even as a very experienced driver I gained so much more knowledge and confidence when taking driver safety schools on an enclosed track.
    I think the more you know about what your car can and can’t do, the more confident and safer driver you become.

    It’s a huge subject and I pray that driver education you taking much more seriously.

    You are greatly appreciated!!

    • Thank you so much, Andy! I agree with you; we need not just more driver education, but the right kind of it, with hazard perception, situation awareness, and self-awareness emphasized far more.

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