August 17, 2020
2.74 Million Deaths – Is Anyone Paying Attention? How & Why We Stopped Caring
By Noam Maital, CEO Waycare Technologies
Since the US highway system was created in 19561, there has been an endless parade of traffic deaths, averaging around 40,000 fatalities a year2. Add them up – they come to 2,737,834 lives lost – approximately the current population of Chicago3.
Imagine an entire city like Chicago wiped out. That is the 64-year toll of highway and road fatalities. Does this make national news? Nobody seems to notice or care, except those whose lives are immediately impacted, and often, ruined. Why? Is this inevitable? Is there nothing to be done?
First let’s explore why nobody seems to care. The main reason appears to be a psychological learning process known as habituation: a progressive decline of behavioral response probability with repetition of a stimulus5. In plain language: The more something is repeated, the less we take note of it. Our brains are trained to spot changes, not the lack thereof. We hear, see, and read about crashes daily – thus we equate these tragic occurrences with a state of normalcy; our brains simply accept this fact as part of the world we live in. If our significant other wears blue on a daily basis, we do not notice. On the one day they wear red, breaking the pattern – we notice. Metaphorically speaking, traffic fatalities are permanently the color blue. This is further ingrained through exposure by mass media. New reports assail us with images and details of gorey crashes – but it does not help, in fact it has the opposite effect since we have become desensitized.
There is a widespread assumption that these 2.7 million fatalities are simply the price we pay for the freedom to get into our cars and drive wherever or whenever we want. “It’s inevitable”, we say. “It can’t be stopped. Another fatal crash. Just one more out of 2.7 million.”
Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”6 describes a situation from which we can draw interesting parallels to this very issue. We are introduced to a village where an annual celebration among the residents includes an unexpected ritual that leads to one of them meeting a gruesome end. The characters act as if the ritual is essential, necessary to the community’s well-being, because that’s the way it has always been done. The story is meant to be disturbing, both in the reveal as well as the overall message. The death of one of their own is not only accepted but almost celebrated. We reject their ceremony out of hand because their society’s values do not square with our own. It is illogical to passively accept something just because it has always been done that way. In the same vein, by treating traffic fatalities as virtually unavoidable, we mirror the citizens from The Lottery. We do not have to accept this “tradition” and in fact it is incumbent upon us to question our own complacency.
So – what can and must be done?
Consider the “Black Lives Matter” movement: between 2013 and 2019, some 1,944 African-Americans died in encounters with the police7. Yet a single death, that of George Floyd, on May 25, ignited massive ongoing protests. How come?
The killing of George Floyd was egregious – eight minutes and 45 seconds all caught on camera. His suffering and ultimate death could not and will not be ignored. Since that day, we have mourned his loss, learned about his life, and come to know members of his family as well. We have all formed a real connection with his story and his legacy. We stand up and say, “No more!” because the cycle of habituation has been broken.
Here are two suggestions for battling deadly habituation and resulting apathy.
First, we need an injection of the human element. Humans are deeply social beings – we thrive in large communities and have a need to form meaningful connections in order to strengthen these bonds. The 30-second news clips of mangled cars are utterly impersonal. Let us learn about real people whose lives are permanently damaged by crashes. Who died? Who were they? What were their dreams? Who were their loved ones? Make crashes personal – and show the aftermath. Dive deeply into the causes. A dangerous curve? Unclear signage? Badly-designed lane changes?
Second, we need to act in the absence of leadership. Vision Zero is a multinational effort that aims to bring traffic fatalities to zero. These types of initiatives need our funding and resources. It will be necessary to demonstrate that these goals are not only realistic but achievable. If 2020 has shown us anything, it is that individuals have the power to enact real change. We need to put pressure on authorities to act decisively.
We have the right to a future where each year traffic fatalities decline significantly. We must demand from our elected officials that they enact plans to this effect; our lives and that of our fellow Americans hang in the balance.
 History.com Editors. (2019, June 7). The Interstate Highway System. History. https://www.history.com/topics/us-states/interstate-highway-system
 The National Safety Council. (2019). Motor Vehicle Deaths Estimated to Have Dropped 2% in 2019. https://www.nsc.org/road-safety/safety-topics/fatality-estimates
 US Census Bureau. (2019, July 1). QuickFacts Chicago city, Illinois; United States. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/chicagocityillinois,US/PST045219
 National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Division of Viral Diseases. (2020, July 21). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Cases and Deaths in the U.S. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/us-cases-deaths.html
 Habituation. (2001). Science Direct. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/habituation
 Jackson, S. (1948, June 19). The Lottery. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/06/26/the-lottery  Bult, L. (2020, June 20). A timeline of 1,944 Black Americans killed by police. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2020/6/30/21306843/black-police-killings