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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Most of us who grew up in the South Bay remember how dangerous Highway 17 was from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz use to be. Not that it's currently a walk in the park, but it is so much safer now than it was back in the 60's and 70's when it was a four-lane road with few (if any) barriers separating the southbound and northbound lanes. It hasn't been just the addition of concrete dividers that has made it more safe, however. An improved driving surface, better signage, raised pavement markers between lanes and on the shoulder, and increased driver awareness about how dangerous a road it can be have also made it a lot safer than it used to be.

But it isn't just road improvements that have made it safer to drive from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. Improvements to cars, such as seat belts and air bags, have helped as well. In fact, all across the nation driving is becoming safer.  Although more than a 30,000 people died in the US from traffic accidents (and more than a million died worldwide), the death rate, in terms of miles driven, has fallen by two-thirds since 1975 (see graphic below).

Not all the news is good news, though. Most driving accidents occur because of human error, and in-car distractions such as mobile devices and lattes only increase the likelihood of human error, which is why driverless cars are probably in our future. The increased safety of cars, as well as the dangers of in-car distractions, is the subject of a recent Freakonomics podcast ("The Most Dangerous Machine"), which you can download from iTunes or listen to at the Freakonomics website.

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