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Why Are American Drivers So Deadly?

Brian Moody, executive editor of the website Autotrader, told me he expected more manufacturers to adopt automated safety technology in the coming years, “at lower prices and across more types of vehicles.” However, he went on: “These are businesses we’re talking about, and they’re in business to make money. They don’t want to be sued, and I’m not so cynical to think they don’t care about deaths — they care. But at the risk of being crass, cost is a consideration.”

A young driver in the market for a $40,000 vehicle can find one with a suite of so-called nanny features, or one with a massive engine and asphalt-stripping torque, but probably not one with both. And young drivers, as has long been the case, tend to account for a lot of the exceedingly dangerous behavior on American roads. In 2012, 4,283 drivers ages 15 to 20 were involved in fatal crashes. In 2021, the last year for which there is data, it was 5,565. As is the case with other demographic groups, more teenagers are speeding: Of all driver age brackets, young males are the most likely to be traveling above the posted speed limit at the time of a fatal crash.

The purest expression of the teenage-speeding phenomenon is the rise in illegal street racing. “I think of it as a plant, or a weed, that hasn’t been taken care of, and during the pandemic, the thing just grew wild,” says Lili Trujillo Puckett, who founded Street Racing Kills in 2014, after Puckett’s 16-year-old daughter was killed during a street-racing event. Puckett now works with courts in California, Florida and Texas on intervention programs for offenders. “When you meet with these guys, they tend to tell you the same thing,” she says. “Yes, they know it’s dangerous. They know they can get hurt and that they can hurt others. But they love the adrenaline rush, they love the excitement, and they have that quality of an immature mind: They say, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’”

National data on crashes resulting from street racing is hard to find, but officials in California, Florida and Texas, where the phenomenon is endemic, have reported significant increases in the number of complaints — in 2021, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received 1,380 calls from residents about local races, up 60 percent from the previous year. Amanda Granit, a spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, told me that most of the racers the county’s deputies have apprehended were young and male. But not all of them, she clarified: “We have also arrested female drivers, including a mom in a minivan, for doing doughnuts in the roadway.”

In September, the Department of Transportation posted early-2023 data showing that 21 states had recorded climbing rates of fatal crashes compared with the same period in 2022; 29 had experienced modest improvement. “I can’t claim that we have it all figured out because it could change,” says Col. Matt Langer, head of the State Patrol in Minnesota, where officials recorded a 11 percent year-over-year drop in fatalities. But that drop, Langer says, represents several dozen people alive now who would have been dead a year ago. “And what has made that possible is a focus on the behaviors that are killing people. So speed, seatbelts, impairment and distraction. For us, a full 85 percent of our enforcement work last year was on those four things.”

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