Norwegians have hit the road again this summer but danger lurks even on the safest new highways. Traffic fatalities have risen sharply so far this year, with police and other transport experts worried that drivers simply aren’t keeping their eyes on the road.
New statistics show nearly a 60 percent increase in traffic deaths through the first half of 2022. Of the 63 people killed on Norwegian roads, 50 were men and more than half the fatal accidents involved private cars. Another 14 were killed in motorcycle accidents and three of the fatalities were pedestrians hit by passing vehicles. The number of traffic fatalities had risen to 70 by this week, after more serious accidents from Tromsø in the north to Sarpsborg in the south.
The national traffic safety organization Trygg Trafikk notes that more than 70 percent of the fatal accidents involve single cars or head-on collisions. Police confirm that use of mobile phones while driving, along with use of touch screens in new, especially electric, cars are often involved as well. Motorists can be distracted by them, take their eyes off the road and quickly lose control of their cars.
“If you’re driving at 80 kilometers an hour (around 50mph) and look at a screen for just five seconds, you’ve driven 110 meters (330 feet),” newspaper Dagsavisen editorialized. It takes that long just to pick up a phone (illegal while driving in Norway), open it and find a texting app without reading a single word.
Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl of the Center Party, long an advocate of building more and safer roads in Norway, has already appealed to motorists to pay attention to the road and traffic while behind the wheel. That’s not enough, argue others, and Trygg Trafikk has held crisis meetings with the transport ministry, police, the national automobile organization NAF and local county officials to launch a new campaign aimed at drivers.
The goal is to make them more aware of how dangerous it is to look at screens of any kind while driving. Motorists caught driving while holding a mobile phone instead of using hands-free face steep fines, but others still have to use touch-screens for anything from navigation systems to simply turning on windshield wipers. That worries NAF, Trygg Trafikk, the state highway authority (Statens vegvesen) and car importers themselves.
While new cars have lots of safety improvements, such as warnings about lane-changing and sensors aimed at keep a distance from other cars, the screens needed just to turn on the radio are emerging as a safety hazard.
“We have a sneaking suspicion that they play a role in accidents,” Bård Morten Johansen of Trygg Trafikk told newspaper Aftenposten just before the weekend. “More cases of running off the road and head-on collisions have become difficult to link to high speed, intoxication, problems with the car or that someone fell asleep at the wheel. Then it can be about a lack of attention to driving.”
Technology for better or worse
There’s no documentation yet that new cars’ information screens are involved in car accidents, but supicions are so strong that NAF and Statens vegvesen are also alarmed. A survey covering the years 2011 to 2015 showed that a drivers’ lack of attention to the road ahead was behind one out of three accidents.
“We shouldn’t try to hinder technology,” Øyvind Rognlien Skovli of Norway’s major importer of Audis and Volkswagen, Harald A Møller, told Aftenposten. He noted how technology has made cars safer, and urged that any new traffic safety laws or regulations must be based on facts, not suspicions. Drivers are also increasingly able to adjust cars’ screens for personal use.
The authorities, meanwhile, are urging motorists to get to know their new cars well, understand how the screens function, update as many settings as possible before driving and if a problem comes up along the way, pull over to the side of the road and stop to fix it instead of just driving on. Passengers in the car can also help.
Safety campaigns making drivers more aware of the hazards are needed urgently, editorialized Dagsavisen, which also urged drivers not to be tempted by the sound of a new email or messages showing up on their phones: “No text message is worth dying for.”