Senseless traffic deaths are heartbreaking, but there is hope

I have a friend, who will remain unnamed, that drives like an absolute maniac. This friend puts the pedal to the floor at every opportunity to accelerate, whether it’s riding another car’s bumper on the highway or tailgating a cyclist on a narrow residential street. As a passenger all I can do is helplessly cling to whatever I can find and pray that everything will be okay.

I’m probably not the only one who knows someone like this. For every hundred drivers on the road, there will always be that one who drives without any sense of rational thought. Somehow, driver safety training and awareness does not seem to impact these people.

Last week’s death of a four-year-old girl in Markham is a stark reminder of what can happen when a child’s unpredictable actions and an irrational driver meet on a residential street. And just yesterday we were reminded again of the unpredictable nature of human drivers when a southbound driver on highway 404 veered across the centre median and crashed head-on into a northbound car on the other side of the highway, claiming three victims.

Yet there is hope for a brighter, safer future. The transportation sector is on the verge of disruption on a scale that has not been seen since the advent of the automobile at the beginning of the last century – the rise of autonomous vehicles. Two weeks ago, drivers were in awe when Tesla released an update for its vehicles enabling them to perform semi-autonomous functions including speed adjustment, lane change, and parallel parking. While today these features are seen as “bells and whistles” more than anything, we are not far from a time when cars are able to fully drive themselves, eliminating the need for a human to operate a vehicle.

So how does this impact safety? Machines are perfectly rational and capable of exactly following a set of rules assigned to them. Hundreds of times per second, autonomous vehicles scan their surroundings using a vast array of sensors for any sign of externalities that might require quick action. They accelerate at reasonable speeds, and always obey the assigned speed limit. Autonomous cars can also be connected to one another, enabling all cars on the road to act as a network, warning of obstacles and communicating so that no two cars will ever attempt to claim the same road space.

It is estimated that in the US, 300,000 lives could be saved in a decade by eliminating collisions caused by human mistakes. Imagine if communities never again having to endure the pain and suffering caused by the death of an innocent child running across a road, or the bitterness and resentment caused by a selfish drunk driver who claims the lives of innocents.

Unfortunately, those drivers who thoroughly enjoy the rush of driving recklessly may be the last people to surrender control of the wheel. However, I am confident that a day will come where autonomous vehicles will no longer be seen simply as a nice-to-have but rather as a fundamental ingredient to making our roads safer for everyone.

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