While car manufacturers and tech companies around the world work to make autonomous vehicles a reality, two UNC researchers are raising some important questions about the impacts — both positive and negative — that this massive change will have on our daily lives and public health.
Over 30,000 Americans die in car accidents every year — 94 percent of those fatalities are caused by human error. Around the world, approximately 1.2 million people lose their lives in car crashes each year. While organizations like theand the calculate these grim statistics annually, they don’t account for all car accidents. “Keep in mind those are just fatalities,” says Travis Crayton, a master’s student at UNC. “That number doesn’t account for all the hardship and healthcare costs included in crashes where people don’t die.”
What if we could eliminate all car accidents caused by human error? That is one of the main arguments made by proponents of autonomous vehicles — safety. Our country, and the world, is on the cusp of a revolution in transportation technology and infrastructure. While industries are focused on perfecting the technology, and consumers are skeptical about trusting it, researchers face a blank page — there is no pre-existing data.
But that didn’t stop Travis Crayton from pursuing it. He went to Benjamin Mason Meier in the Department of Public Policy. “He was interested in what automated cars would mean for the shape of our cities in the future, and I was interested in what this would mean for public health,” Meier says. “There were no articles out there really thinking about the health impacts.”
Wrangling a disruptive technology
The link between public health and transportation dates back hundreds of years — to when a horse and buggy was the dominant mode of transit. “Public health and planning have always been really closely linked,” Crayton says. “Horse manure in cities impacted public health in a really negative way.
Transitioning to the automobile changed everything. “When we first moved from horse to car, we had to think about transportation issues that didn’t exist before,” Meier says. “We got rid of manure on the street — but suddenly we had to deal with more accidents.”
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Travis Crayton is a dual-degree master’s student in the UNC School of Government and the Department of City and Regional Planning in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Benjamin Mason Meier is an associate professor of global health policy and the Zachary Taylor Smith Distinguished Professor of Public Policy in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Their research appears in the Journal of Transport and Health.