Safety First. Safety Always.

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Safety first, safety always.

When it comes to connected and automated vehicles, you could say I was an early adopter. My interest in this technology dates back more than a decade, and while there are many benefits, none matters more than the potential to save lives. This is why I am so pleased to welcome the 2018 ITS America Annual Meeting to Detroit in June. 

At the Michigan Department of Transportation, we embrace the Toward Zero Deaths movement. The only acceptable number for deaths on Michigan roads is zero. That sounds lofty, I realize. But when you ask someone how many deaths from auto crashes are acceptable, people scratch their heads, then the answers vary widely. Phrase the question another way — “How many crash deaths are acceptable for your family members?” — the answer is, understandably, a quick and resounding “Zero!”

Some 37,000 people died on our nation’s roads last year, yet the reporting on each is often minimal, no doubt reflecting our unfortunate acceptance of these tragedies. Have we become desensitized?

Think about it. Thirty-seven thousand deaths. People like you and me, our spouses, children... Just conducting their daily lives, commuting to work, traveling for vacation, driving to a child’s school concert or football game.

That number is the equivalent of 370 plane crashes with 100 passengers each. Any one of those catastrophes would have us riveted to the wall-to-wall media coverage.

The development of connected and automated vehicles offers the most significant breakthrough to reduce that number since the advent of the automobile. As reported in the Atlantic Monthly in 2015, researchers estimate driverless cars could, by mid-century, reduce traffic deaths by as much as 90 percent. In the U.S. alone, that would save 300,000 lives over a decade.

Let’s face it. The exponential evolution of technology shows no signs of slowing. That technology both enables and demands multi-tasking. Multi-tasking might be fine in some instances but not when it comes to driving.

Despite ever-evolving laws and prolific safety campaigns, distracted driving continues to cause more crashes and more deaths. Automakers have made tremendous strides in building safer vehicles -- seat belts, air bags, anti- lock brakes, and more recently, lane control, adaptive cruise control, forward and rear assist and more.

But even while the technology and research continues to save lives, we discover new distractions to offset the gains. Today, more than 68 percent of U.S. adults have a smart phone, up from 35 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.

While safety is the over-riding imperative, driverless cars hold other benefits. Chief among these is mobility in our golden years. If any of you have had to take the keys from a parent or another elderly relative, you know how painful that can be.

All of this brings me to some key things going on in Michigan. With overwhelming bipartisan support, the Legislature last year adopted bills that will keep Michigan at the forefront of these developments. With genuine enthusiasm, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bills a few weeks later. Chiefly, the bills: allow complete AV operations on any road, any time, with no special license; allow for truck platooning; allow on-demand automated networks; and created the Michigan Council on Future Mobility.

So the future of self-driving vehicles presents myriad ways to make our lives safer and more efficient. As someone who has spent my entire career, more than three decades, searching for ways to improve the movement of people and goods, I see limitless possibilities.

Kirk Steudle is the Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation.