Can Autonomous Vehicles Improve Our Health?

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Think about the last time you drove. Was your phone still glued to your hand? Were you in a rush? How many other people did you spy with their eyes off the road?

Today, distracted driving is the leading factor in most auto crashes and near crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Michigan, the number of traffic injuries increased 10 percent from 2010 to 2017.

That’s why many healthcare providers are advocating for the development of autonomous vehicles and other technologies designed to improve highway safety.

“If you look at our traffic deaths, we lose about 40,000 people a year,” says Philip Hessburg, M.D., Director of the Henry Ford Health System’s Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology. “That’s more than we lose from gunshot wounds, but somehow we don’t focus our media on the fact that so many people are killed on the highway.”

Autonomous vehicles, which are beginning to appear on roads throughout the country, may be able to cut those numbers drastically and help contribute to a safer, healthier transportation system. Here’s how:

  1. Eliminating human error. Human error is the primary cause of 94 percent of all traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As self-driving cars learn to communicate better with their surroundings (pedestrians, sidewalks, other cars, etc.), they’ll become a more reliable pilot in situations where a distracted driver might be more likely to cause an accident. “If you remove the driver from the equation, you can reduce traffic deaths by an enormous percentage,” Dr. Hessburg says.
  2. Fewer cars on the road. Traffic congestion is a major headache in plenty of U.S. cities. With on-demand driverless cars, it’s possible that the number of vehicles on the road could be reduced by millions as they replace several privately owned vehicles. Additionally, self-driving cars will be able to park themselves efficiently, replacing human-piloted cars circling around to find a space.
  3. Biometric sensors. In 2016, 236 people were killed in Michigan in drunk driving accidents. By gathering biometric data like pulse, respiratory rate, pupil size or O2 and CO2 levels inside a car, vehicles may be able to know when a driver shouldn’t be operating a vehicle, or transport the ailing driver to the nearest emergency room.
  4. Fuel efficiency. Transportation accounts for more than 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. AVs can be programmed to reduce speeding, harsh breaking or idling—all of which equate to an excess consumption of gas. By reducing fuel emissions, our air quality could improve, especially in urban areas where smog is prevalent.
  5. Increased independence. For the elderly and disabled, getting out of the house and into an urban center can be a complex challenge. Without the requirement of driving, however, people will be able to exercise greater independence, leading to (potentially) more active and robust social lives.

To date, autonomous vehicles are already on the road in dozens of U.S. cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, but industry experts estimate that AVs aren’t likely to overtake human-driven vehicles for anywhere from a few years to a few decades. So until then, road safety is still largely in your own hands.


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Dr. Philip Hessburg is the medical director of the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology (DIO), which is the research education arm of the Henry Ford Department of Ophthalmology. The DIO is committed to assisting and educating the visually impaired, helping them to maintain independence and dignity, while learning how to live a satisfying and productive life in a sighted world. The DIO also is a world leader in facilitating collaborative research related to the eye.

Categories: FeelWell

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