Driverless Cars Could Help Stop Traffic Deaths

Driverless cars could provide a long-term solution to the 1.25 million deaths that occur on the world’s roads each year, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) official.

In its 2015 report on the state of global road safety, the WHO found that road accidents are the leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds around the world. The report also found massive inequality in the geographical distribution of road traffic deaths, 90 percent of which occur in low and middle income countries, particularly in Africa, despite these countries only having 54 percent of the world’s vehicles. The report also found that the United States failed to impose several best practices, such as requiring all passengers to wear a seatbelt and prohibiting the use of handheld mobile phones while driving.

A recent report by Business Insider Intelligence predicted that 10 million cars with some degree of self-driving capability will be on the roads by 2020. The director of Google’s self-driving division, Chris Urmson, recently hinted that the technology giant is aiming to make self-driving cars commercially available in the next four years, while Elon Musk, the chief executive of electric car manufacturers Tesla, has predicted that completely autonomous cars will be a reality within three years.

During six years of testing, Google’s self-driving cars have so far covered more than two million miles (3.2 million km), over half of which was completed autonomously by the vehicle without manual intervention. In that period, Google have recorded 16 minor accidents, none of which were caused by the self-driving car.

Etienne Krug, the director of the WHO department responsible for road traffic safety, says that driverless cars may solve the problem in the future but that immediate solutions were also required to reduce current death rates. “I think in the medium or even long-term, [driverless cars] could be a solution and will possibly contribute to safety, but these are measures for the distant future,” says Krug. “What is happening now is that 1.25 million people are dying every year and we don’t have seatbelts in cars, we don’t have the right legislation on speed or drink driving, the laws are not enforced.”

The WHO report found that, in the past three years, 17 countries have adopted safety measures such as seat belts, drink-driving laws and the obligatory use of motorcycle helmets. However, Krug says that the situation is still worrisome in Africa and the Middle East, where road safety practices are not as culturally ingrained as in Europe, which he cites as having the best record on road safety.

In countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands and the U.K.—which Krug says are among the best-performing countries—”there has been a long-standing commitment to road safety for several decades,” he says. Such countries have managed to “create a culture of safety on the road where it is [unacceptable] to drink and drive, or to speed, or to not wear a seatbelt or a helmet.”

The report also highlights that almost half (49 percent) of road traffic deaths are among pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, a situation which Krug says must be improved by providing clearer divisions on roads for different forms of traffic, such as dedicated cycle lanes.

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