National news of the horrific head-on crash that killed a Northville family of five and the driver of the pickup truck that hit them has spurred traffic safety experts and policymakers to call for more action to prevent auto deaths.
In memory of the Abbas family, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn offered federal legislation to crackdown on drunken driving by requiring new vehicles to be equipped with devices that check a driver’s breath-alcohol concentration before starting.
The driver of the pickup had an a blood-alcohol level of .306, nearly four times the .08 legal limit, officials said Wednesday.
Other safety measures are being championed by nonprofit and advocacy groups.
Despite the increased safety measures to prevent these types of fatalities, more than 40,000 Americans — an average of one every 15 minutes — died on roads and highways in 2016 and 2017, according the the National Safety Council.
Last year’s fatalities, expected next month, are on track to top 40,000 again.
Enhanced technology and education campaigns warning about the dangers of distracted and impaired driving should be making it safer to drive, but the number of fatalities still went up, experts say.
“Approximately 40,000 fatalities a year is pretty grim,” said Alex Epstein, the safety council’s traffic safety director. “It’s a grim testament to what we in American society accept as the price for mobility: It’s major complacency.”
Unlike airline fatalities, Epstein said, auto crashes — unless they are horrifying are ignored and quickly forgotten by the public.
“On some level,” he added, “there has been a kind of acceptance of the background of fatalities and crashes on the roadways. Even in what we call what happens on the roadways: Most people call them accidents instead of crashes.”
In two years, from 2014, when the number of deaths was 35,398, to 2016, fatalities increased 14 percent. That was the greatest increase in more than a half-century. From 2016 and 2017, fatalities declined slightly, about 1 percent.
The recent increase is significant because for nearly a decade fatalities had been decreasing.
Moreover, data show hit-and-run pedestrian fatalities have gone up, too.
Experts say it is difficult to determine what’s causing the uptick in auto deaths.
Explanations include: an increase in the number of miles that people are driving, distractions from mobile phones and electronic devices, larger vehicles that do more damage — and an increased potential for driving while impaired.
In Michigan, records from the state Office of Highway and Safety Planning, tell a similar story, with annual deaths in the state surpassing the 1,000 mark in both 2016 and 2017, the highest numbers in a decade.
And, experts now fear, marijuana legalization could add to impaired driving deaths.
“It’s one more thing that could factor in,” said state highway safety spokeswoman Kari Arend. “So, during our last impaired driving campaign we focused on — are you not just drinking and driving — but are you impaired by a substance.”
Faces of the fatalities
Earlier this month, Issam Abbas, 42; his wife, Dr. Rima Abbas, 38, and their three children, Ali, 13; Isabella, 12, and Giselle, 7 — were killed on I-75 in Kentucky while driving home from vacation.
Issam Abbas was an attorney and real estate agent. His wife, a Beaumont doctor, specialized in family medicine.
Their Cadillac Escalade was struck head-on by a white Chevrolet pickup.
The pickup driver — Joey Lee Bailey, 41, of Georgetown, Kentucky — also died.
Lexington police said Bailey clearly was at fault for the collision. He was headed the wrong way on a strip of interstate in Lexington, Kentucky — and, reports show, was intoxicated. The luxury SUV he hit burst into flames after impact.
The Arab-American family, which was put to rest after a service at one of America’s most prominent mosques in Dearborn on Tuesday, received an outpouring of anguish and support.
Thousands of people, including several public officials, paid their respects.
Safety experts say tragedies like this one are preventable — and too common.
Auto crashes are the No. 1 cause of death of children and teenagers, according to a new University of Michigan study published in the News England Journal of Medicine. More than 4,100 children nationally died in car crashes, the study found.
“Our country has spent billions to decrease car crash injuries and deaths for kids and adults, and has made it a leading priority for several federal agencies,” study author Rebecca Cunningham said. “Safety in a crash is now a selling point for cars.”
Reversing the trend
In addition, experts say, there may be other glimmers of hope.
In late 2016, the White House issued a public call to action, noting — at the time — that on average “nearly 100 people” die daily from vehicle related accidents: “Your neighbor driving to work. Your niece walking to the park. Your brother biking home.”
The United States has one of the highest per capita road death rates in the world.
In Michigan, the number of deaths between 2016 and 2017 also dropped, from 1,064 to 1,028, and could continue to decline in 2018. The data, officials said, is not expected to be released until spring.
Nationwide, the National Safety Council has organized the Road to Zero Coalition, a group of more than 800 organizations that aim to end all roadway deaths in the U.S. by 2050.
The group is advocating for a complex package of reforms and measures that could include more police enforcement, more safety technology in cars and on roadways and street and highway engineering that would make driving safer.
And if any good can be found in terrible crashes it is that they have helped focus attention on trying to prevent future deaths.
In a speech on the House floor, Dingell vowed to take action.
“I have to go home to a community that is still grieving. I can’t look them in the eye unless we are really willing to try to do something,” she said, pledging to mandate the interlock breathalyzers. ”This will stop intoxicated drivers from ever starting a vehicle and keep them off the roads.”
The nonprofit group Mothers Against Drunk Driving also is seeking more legislation requiring breathalyzer locks.
Ultimately, Epstein said, all drivers must be more aware and more careful.
“When you get down to it all, people, when they get behind the wheel have to focus on the task of driving,” he said. “They must remember it is a task that requires the utmost attention and it has the power of life and death.”
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or [email protected]
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