Every year, millions of people unfortunately die in road-traffic accidents and millions more are seriously injured. As per World Health Organisation’s latest report, the global fatality rate is 1.34 million per annum. This number looks very scary when we realise that its equivalent to wiping out cities like Dallas (US), Birmingham (UK), Munich (DE) or Gurugram (IND) – every year!
More than half of the fatalities are pedestrians, cyclists, two-wheel riders and by-standers while 0.65 million or so are vehicle occupants. There are numerous report and research papers pointing out that more that 50% of these vehicle-occupant deaths happen due to ‘not wearing a seatbelt’. United States, China & India lead the world in registering the number of annual fatalities but alarmingly, despite numerous technological advancements and government regulations, no significant drop has been noticed for decades.
These statistics force us to realise that may be its high time to overhaul the safety of automobiles and public roads.
A lot is already being done by various stakeholders- automakers, Non-Profit Organisations, State & Federal/Central Governments, to reduce auto accidents or fatalities from it. Top global automotive companies regularly introduce numerous technologies to incrementally enhance safety of their vehicles. Several non-profit organisations run awareness campaigns online and at popular venues to further educate people about road-safety and accident prevention. Many government regulations exist to ensure compliance to safety standards and to penalise unsafe driving.
Campaigns like Click-it-or-Ticket (US), Buckle-Up (EU), or a recent Rs 1,000 penalty introduced in India could be a good deterrence. However, the proof is in the pudding- if the number of deaths is not reducing year-over-year then either policies & regulations are not effective, awareness campaigns are not working, or available technologies are not helping in making the modern vehicles progressively safer.
Apparently, humans are not much disheartened or aggrieved by daily counts of deaths and consider them as a part of our daily life. However, we get very outraged and immediate demand actions when either a major disaster happens, or a popular person loses his/her life. Be it the car crash in 1997 which killed Princess Diana, auto accident in 2013 in which Hollywood star Paul Walker perished or the recent car accident taking life of Indian business tycoon Cyrus Mistry, we have not learned much, and safety of the vehicle occupants is still gets compromised- everywhere and every day!
Let’s accept it, we ourselves have taken rides in which all occupants didn’t secure their seatbelts. Anyways, human errors continue to be the dominating root cause of most auto accidents, which further strengthens our belief that effective use of technological improvements could be our eventual reliable direction to make the vehicles and roads safer than ever.
The usage of collision avoidance alert and assist systems can play a big role in preventing automotive accidents. However, these have either not matured yet to a high level of reliability or have not been used widely to showcase their true impact on reducing fatalities. Moreover, most ‘alerts’ system like Forward Collision Warning, Lane departure Warning, Cross Traffic Warning, Distracted Driver Detection, Pedestrian Detection and ‘assist’ systems like Automatic Emergency Braking, Adaptive Cruise Control, Electronic Stability Control, Parking and Traffic-Jam assists etc., are presently available primarily on high-end vehicles and hence don’t benefit most vehicles currently on road.
Use of these feature as a part of ADAS/AD L2/3 package will help automotive OEMs for sure in future to sell safer automobiles. Mandating use of features like Shatter-resistant Glass, Crumple Zones, Surround Cameras, Side-Curtain Airbags, Seatbelt Airbags, Adaptive Headlights etc can further enhance the safety of automobile and vehicle occupants. However, one of the effective mitigation strategies, which could be implemented right away, is to rather engineer smart automobiles so that human-error factors are significantly reduced, and unsafe driving is fully eliminated.
Although various global OEMs and suppliers could come up with a unique technology application on how to resolve his issue permanently, but I feel there are some low-hanging fruits which could be picked to quickly improve the safety of automobiles and of people in and around them.
It could be very challenging to motivate every vehicle occupant, across all countries, to always put their seat belt on when in car but it is relatively easy to ensure that a vehicle doesn’t move at all until all vehicle occupants wear seatbelts.
Catchy slogan like ‘ALL Click-It or just Park-It’, ‘Buckle-Up ALL or No-Go’ etc. could be used to educate drivers about immobility of their vehicles until every occupant is fully secured. Mandating seatbelt for every seat could be the first step followed having an occupant sensor in every seat. Several high-value vehicles don’t shift from park to drive mode unless driver’s seatbelt is locked.
This strategy could be easily extended to all occupants of a vehicle. A seating domain control unit can easily detect when a seat is occupied or not and a vehicle control unit could use the info to not let the vehicle move unless all occupied seats have seat belts locked.
If a seatbelt is unlocked after a vehicle starts moving then visual, audio, or vibrational warnings could be given to the relevant occupants to again secure themselves. Most modern-day vehicles do give such warnings but primarily to front-row seat occupants. Moreover, these warning go away after 30 seconds or so, allowing a car to move without first ensuring safety of all occupants.
Mandating non-stop warnings could be a bit annoying initially but it will definitely make sure that all occupants are forced to lock their seatbelt before a car moves. Similar warning to driver could be given to stop the vehicle at a safe location unless all passengers have their seatbelts locked again.
There are a few after-market dummy buckles available to bypass locking of actual seatbelts. That possibility could be eliminated by either (1) making the seatbelt buckles smart, with a low-cost chip in it, to only authenticate seatbelt-locked signal if the OEM provided & coded buckles are used or (2) make the restraint system software smart to chronologically sync the two events- passenger sitting on seat and locking/unlocking of seatbelt.
Thinking beyond seatbelts & airbags, mandating speed limiters or governors in every vehicle could further reduce the fatalities from high-speed car accidents. Last but not least, to ensure drivers don’t flaunt rules intentionally, the vehicle control unit of a connected automobile can be enabled to automatically report unsafe driving behavior to OEMs or even directly to a central law-enforcement agency. These agencies could use the driving behavior information to not only create individual Safe Driver Rating index but also force unsafe driver off the public roads through monetary penalties, driving-license suspension and mandatory safe-driving training.
To ensure drivers don’t flaunt rules intentionally, the vehicle control unit of a connected automobile can be enabled to report unsafe driving behaviour to OEMs or even directly to a central law-enforcement agency.
Several times, promising major automotive technological features get ignored by companies citing high cost of implementation, low incremental impact on revenues or adverse impact on profitability. However, quick math on ballpark expenses related to new parts, hardware & software development & integration and test & validations could show that that the incremental cost may not even exceed $100 (approx. Rs 8,163) per vehicle – even for a worst-case product mix scenario!
As per the WHO, road traffic crashes cost most countries 3% of their gross domestic product. So, cost to the major economies United States ($23 trillion), China ($17 trillion), Japan ($5 trillion), Germany ($4 trillion) and India ($3.5 trillion) will be north of $1 trillion this year. With an average of 60 million vehicles sold annually, the loss to top-5 countries, per vehicle, will be more than 100 times the cost of making changes in vehicle to avoid huge loss of human lives in the first place!
Anyways, financial gurus could do deep-dive on cost-benefit analytics, but I hope we’ll agree that $30 million (Rs 242 crore) is very small amount to save at least 300,000 vehicle occupants we lose every year.
A state or federal/central government agency responsible for automotive and transportation regulations could work closely with OEMs and supplier to come up with the right legal framework around effective solutions, to prevent such automotive disasters. There are numerous automotive experts, safety gurus and experienced organisations who could easily help government agencies and automotive and Transportation companies in not only coming up with right policies and strategies but also in working along with automotive OEMs and suppliers to successfully execute such vehicle improvements to make the world a much safer place to travel- for us and future generations!
The author is the Vice President at Kearney.
Disclaimer: All views, thoughts, and opinions expressed above belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organisation, department, committee, or other group or individual.