Brian Moody, executive editor of the Autotrader website, told me he expected more manufacturers to adopt automated safety technology in the coming years, “at lower prices and in more types of vehicles.” However, he continued: “These are businesses we’re talking about, and they’re in business to make money. They don’t want to be sued, and I’m not so cynical as to think they don’t care about deaths — they do. But at the risk of being dumb, the cost is a consideration.”
A young driver in the market for a $40,000 vehicle might find one with a suite of so-called nanny features, or one with a huge engine and asphalt torque, but probably not both. And young drivers, as has long been the case, tend to be responsible for much of the extremely dangerous behavior on American roads. In 2012, 4,283 drivers aged 15 to 20 were involved in fatal crashes. In 2021, the latest year for which data is available, it was 5,565. As with other demographic groups, more teenagers are speeding: Of all driver age groups, young men are the most likely to be traveling over the posted speed limit at the time of a fatal crash.
The purest expression of the teenage speed phenomenon is the rise of illegal street racing. “I think of it as a plant or a weed that hasn’t been taken care of and during the pandemic, the thing went wild,” says Lili Trujillo Puckett, who founded Street Racing Kills in 2014, after Puckett was 16. -the daughter was killed in a race. Puckett now works with courts in California, Florida and Texas on offender intervention programs. “When you meet these guys, they tend to tell you the same thing,” he says. “Yes, they know it’s dangerous. They know they can be hurt and that they can hurt others. But they like the adrenaline rush, they like the excitement, and they have this immature mind quality: They say, “It’s not going to happen to me.”
National data on accidents resulting from street racing are hard to come by, but officials in California, Florida and Texas, where the phenomenon is endemic, have reported significant increases in the number of complaints — in 2021, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received 1,380 calls from residents about local breeds, a 60 percent increase from the previous year. Amanda Granit, a spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, told me that most of the runners that county deputies have arrested have been young and male. But not all of them, he clarified: “We’ve also arrested female drivers, including a mom in a minivan, for doing donuts on the road.”
In September, the Department of Transportation released data in early 2023 showing that 21 states had seen climbing fatality rates compared to the same period in 2022. 29 had experienced modest improvement. “I can’t claim we have it all figured out because it could change,” says Col. Matt Langer, head of the State Patrol in Minnesota, where officials recorded an 11 percent drop in fatalities year over year. But that drop, Langer says, represents several dozen people living now who would have died a year ago. “And what made it possible is focusing on the behaviors that kill people. So speed, seat belts, disability and distraction. For us, a full 85 percent of our law enforcement work last year involved those four things.”