By Teddy Vagias, Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Advocate

You’ve probably heard the very old saying, “When one person dies, it’s a tragedy. When a million die, it’s a statistic.” According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1.3 million people die in traffic crashes each year around the world. Nearly 40,000 of those lives are lost right here in the United States, and if you read the previous edition of #talkITS or attended INTERSECT17 last year, you may already know my story.

My son Leo died in a car crash two years ago this June, but my family and I refuse to let anyone consider his death to be part of a larger statistic. He was a real kid, loved by his family and friends, who made our lives better just by living his own. I’d like to claim we are unique, but we’re not. Every victim, and I chose that word deliberately, is someone’s son, daughter, friend, or relative.

Leo and his best friend Sam were killed in a car crash on Father’s Day weekend. There were no drugs or alcohol involved, not that it changes the matter. They were just two really good kids who had worked hard all day and never made it back home. Their lives, and their deaths, have changed us forever.

Since the crash, I’ve become a passionate advocate for the forgotten driver, the passenger, and their families and friends who are abandoned as statistics because their deaths occurred in automobiles. I know in my heart, that if Leo and Sam’s car had been equipped with connected or autonomous vehicle systems, or the road had been modernized with those technologies, they and countless others would still be with us. Since Leo and Sam died, thousands of American families and friends have suffered through the same tragedy as ours.

While I recognize the need to do research and test the technology, I’m frustrated by the excuses and the so-called problems that are preventing connected and autonomous vehicles from saving lives right now. The technology exists to bring a stop to the endless nightmare on our roadways, but outside of a small group of advocates, there is no sense of urgency or political will to get it done, especially recently as it relates to autonomous vehicles. We all sit by and tolerate 100-deaths-per-day, as well as the pain families and friends who lose a loved one feel, because it’s acceptable. It’s NOT acceptable.

The technology exists to bring a stop to the endless nightmare on our roadways.

Last September the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Self Drive Act that could have been the first legislation to put rules governing the deployment of autonomous vehicles on our roadways and would have helped clear up the patchwork of state laws that currently exist. Instead of passing the House version, the Senate decided to take up its own bill calling it the AV Start Act which would have achieved many similar objectives. But after making its way through committee, the Senate version has been stalled by issues. Some are safety related, probably influenced by two recent high-profile crashes in Arizona and California, but other concerns include privacy, cybersecurity, and probably some unspoken political reasons.

Nothing is perfect and there will always be arguments and personal interests, but virtually everyone understands the lifesaving potential of autonomous and connected technologies. Can you always guarantee 100% safety? Of course not, but even with current technology, America could deploy a national network that would begin driving down our 100-person-a-day death toll. Imagine the horror of wanting it to just go to 90 per day. Then imagine when it’s 80. I know it’s not easy to say or think, but we need to reverse this number and our goal must be zero deaths.

There are other forces at play. Truck and taxi drivers, as well as their associations and representatives, legal, medical and repair industries, and others, are understandably worried about protecting their jobs. There is frankly an entire industry unknowingly and knowingly built around the crash economy. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) study The Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010, released in 2014, indicates the economic cost of crashes and incidents on our roadways totals more than $240 billion per year in legal and court costs, property damage, medical costs, emergency services, insurance administration, and losses to employers. Obviously, those whose livelihoods depend on crashes, have a lot to lose.

I’m not insensitive and I’m not here to disparage these people. I don’t blame anyone for the work they do, but I just want to have an honest discussion about this terrible topic. We need to openly acknowledge that industries will change, and they need to support and retrain their employees. Every person I identified has a right to earn a living in this great nation, but probably without knowing it, I believe that many truly don’t understand that these specific interests are slowing down advances that could save lives and prevent tragedy. Technology could have saved Leo and Sam, and I refuse to let another day pass where others will feel this same pain without action. There are numerous testbeds and research projects underway throughout the country and it is my hope that some of these can generate the kind of change that will start to bring down the number of senseless deaths.

But here’s the thing. It’s just not happening fast enough. If you’ve gotten this far in this article, you probably care deeply about this subject. As the father of a son I’ll never see again, I’m begging you to use your influence as a transportation leader or as a mom or dad, to help end the nightmare before thousands more people die unnecessarily. Please support connected and autonomous vehicles in any way you can, whether it’s calling your Senator to accelerate legislation, asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to mandate connectivity in new vehicles, or asking your company or state to fund the deployment of new technologies. The red tape is literally killing us, but I’m convinced together, we can cut through it.

To read more articles from the Summer 2018 edition of #talkITS, subscribe online here

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