If you’re anything like us, you’ve noticed an increasing number of reports about car accidents in Pennsylvania. Whether you get your news from the internet or the radio, it seems like every day there’s at least one story about someone getting into a fatal accident. It may feel like our highways and local roads are deadlier than ever.
That feeling you’re getting is right: Pennsylvania’s roads are getting more dangerous. ABC 27 reports that Pennsylvania’s fatality rate is projected to increase by 4.5%, while national numbers are showing a 3.3% decrease in fatalities. Over the past week alone, we have seen reports about:
- A Harrisburg police officer driving the wrong way on a one-way street and hitting a car filled with teenagers, one of whom died.
- A vehicle collision on Route 30 that led to multiple people being injured, and one succumbing to those injuries.
- A woman pulled out of an intersection and into the path of an SUV onto Route 30, and later died from the injuries.
Perhaps even more disturbing is that these incidents, though tragic, are not indicative of why fatalities are increasing on PA roads. According to CBS 21, “the most common type of fatal car accident did not involve another moving vehicle.” In other words, most fatalities involve single-vehicle crashes, where the car hits a stationary object or where the car hits pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-drivers. There have been several of those lately, too:
- Two men in Bala Cynwyd were killed when a car rolled backwards down a driveway.
- A pedestrian was killed in what appears to be a hit-and-run in Erie County.
- Another pedestrian died in Lancaster County on Thursday, near Mount Joy Road.
What is causing the increase in traffic fatalities in PA?
Pennsylvania is one of the few states that saw an increase in road deaths, and no trends have emerged this year. But if we look at last year’s data, we can see a distributing rise in distracted driving-related fatalities. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that deadly distracted driving crashes increased by a third between 2021 and 2022.
Dealing with driver distraction may be harder than we think. We know that cellphone use may be to blame in the majority of distraction-related crashes, but it’s hardly the only thing. Today’s cars come equipped with technologies that we simply aren’t prepared for. Think about the average vehicle sold in the 2020s. That vehicle likely has:
- A built in GPS unit
- An “infotainment” dashboard with touchscreen controls
- Upgraded speaker systems with surround sound
- Connections to the Internet
Even the safety systems light up and make noise while you’re driving. And while we do not dispute that things like lane assist or automatic braking are saving lives, we do worry that today’s drivers are more reliant on these systems to keep them safe, and less reliant on their own active driving skills.
The biggest [distraction] culprits, according to some experts, are the sprawling, multilayered, touch-screen-based interfaces that have taken over new vehicle consoles. In recent years these displays have grown larger and incorporated more components, says David Strayer, an applied cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, who studies driver behavior. “There’s more information for the driver to look at,” Strayer explains—and with more information comes more distraction. Any glances away from the road that last longer than two seconds elevate crash risk, he says. Many cars allow drivers to input GPS directions or dictate texts and complex commands via Bluetooth or to navigate a touch screen to manage basic functions while the vehicle is in motion. Some consoles even display video. All of these features can absorb a driver’s attention for far longer than is safe.
Everyone generally knows that texting while driving is a bad idea. With built-in features, however, drivers tend to think, “If it’s in the car, it must have been put there because it’s safe, it’s been fully vetted and it’s going to work,” Strayer says. But that’s often not the case, he notes. “We have not kept safety as our priority,” Strayer adds.
The plan to reduce traffic fatalities in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation issued a Strategic Highway Safety Plan in 2022 – a type of blueprint, the agency says, for reducing traffic fatalities. The stated goal for the next five years (through 2027) was to reduce traffic fatalities by 2% each year, and to “maintain level for suspected serious injuries,” with an ultimate goal of zero fatalities by 2050. The Plan specifically aims to reduce the number of distracted drivers, as well as the number of speeding, impaired, and aggressive drivers, on our roads. It also addresses vehicle-assist technologies like the ones we spoke of above, acknowledging “it may take up to 10 years to turn over the existing fleet to allow for greater saturation of these emerging technologies.”
What we find interesting, though, is the data included in this plan. According to that data, the greatest percentage of traffic fatalities is caused by lane departure accidents (52% of total fatalities between 2018-2022). Per PennDOT, distracted driving only accounted for 5% of all traffic fatalities in those years. But we would argue that these numbers, though easily digested, are not necessarily correct.
For example, say a driver is adjusting his GPS and swerves into another lane, causing an accident. On its surface, this is a lane departure accident – but isn’t it also a distracted driving accident? Or what if a driver spills a drink in her lap, and exits the roadway, hitting a tree: would that driver have been in a lane departure accident if she hadn’t been distracted by the spilled drink?
Our point is this: car crashes, especially fatal ones, are rarely cut-and-dry. There may be multiple root causes, or a cascade of events which lead to a collision with another vehicle, a person, a cyclist, or even a telephone pole. While we’ve no doubt that lane departures are indeed the primary cause of fatalities on Pennsylvania roadways, we cannot pretend these crashes happen in a vacuum.
So – what can WE do to help prevent deadly accidents?
First, we should make a promise to ourselves that we’ll commit to being actively engaged in driving. That means setting the GPS before leaving the house, putting the cellphone away, and keeping our eyes and ears open to what’s happening on the road.
Second, we should all be wearing seat belts all the time, whether we’re driving to work or dashing across town to grab groceries. Statistics show that wearing a seat belt reduces the risk (and number) of fatalities. Buckling up may not prevent a crash and it may not prevent injuries, but it can prevent deaths.
Third, we should model good behavior for others in our vehicles. Adults and children alike learn by repetition, so repeatedly putting on your seat belt (and asking others to do the same), using your blinkers, and putting away your cell phone can inspire others to do the same.
Finally – and perhaps most importantly – we must be honest with ourselves when we get behind the wheel. Did you have a glass of wine with dinner, or fail to get a good night’s rest? Call an Uber or a cab. Are you running late? Let someone know that you’re behind schedule. Is your cellphone blowing up? Turn on the “do not disturb” function and lock it away in the glovebox, so you’re not tempted. We need to recognize that our behaviors on the road can affect others, so it’s in everyone’s best interests to be safe behind the wheel.
If you are injured while traveling on Pennsylvania’s roads, know that you have a partner in KBG Injury Law. Our car accident attorneys are here to help when someone’s negligence causes you harm, or if the worst comes to pass and your loved one dies as a result of another’s actions. We offer compassionate, competent counsel for clients throughout South Central Pennsylvania. To schedule a free consultation, please call us or fill out our contact form. We maintain offices in York, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Hanover, and Gettysburg for your convenience.
The personal injury attorneys at KBG Injury Law are all experienced litigators. Almost all of them represented insurance companies prior to becoming advocates for injured people, which provides them with a unique perspective and insight into how these companies operate. They also offer extensive courtroom experience if going to trial is the best legal alternative for the client.