DETROIT – If the auto industry does not work to effect change, current costly safety trends could continue forever, says Joseph N. Kanianthra, associate administrator for vehicle safety research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

In 2005, there were 15.2 million crashes, of which 6.2 million required police reports; 4.3 million involved damage; and 1.8 million resulted in injury. There were 39,189 fatal collisions, and the year ended with the loss of 43,443 lives. It added up to a societal cost of $230.6 billion, Kanianthra tells a panel at Convergence 2006 Transportation Electronics Conference here.

While motorcycle accidents have doubled since 1999, trends in passenger-car crashes have not seen a dramatic change for decades.

Nor have injury trends deviated much since 1999, when there were 3.3 million serious injuries. That figure has dropped only slightly to today’s 2.7 million.

Breaking it down, 28% of accidents involve rear-end crashes; 25% involve vehicles “crossing the path”; 23% involve vehicles leaving the road, potentially rolling over; and 9% are related to a lane change or merge, Kanianthra says.

An alarming 44% of accidents are classified as recognition errors, where the driver did not anticipate another vehicle making a move such as stopping, turning or changing lanes.

Another 23% involve decision errors, such as accelerating to pass unsuccessfully. Nine percent involve erratic actions, such as stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake; 6% are alcohol and drug related; 8% occur because of drowsiness.

“So nine-tenths of problems are driver-related,” Kanianthra says. “We’re causing problems – not the cars themselves.”

Equally frightening are findings from an examination of 300 crashes that show, in an impending crash, most drivers did nothing. They did not steer or brake, but froze like a deer in the headlights, Kanianthra says.

The situation is unlikely to improve with an aging population and a steady 2% annual growth in the number of vehicles on U.S. roads, he warns.

“Should we accept crashes as inevitable? Or try to prevent them?” he asks.

Safety needs a novel approach if established trends have any chance of being disrupted, he concludes.

With more technology, the distinction between driver and vehicle becomes less. “We need to take advantage of that,” he says.

A focus on prevention can at least reduce the severity of crashes, if not avoid accidents altogether, NHTSA asserts.

There is a growing list of new technologies, including electronic stability control, night vision, adaptive cruise control, roll stability control, lane departure warning, brake assist, blind spot warning, rear collision warning, automatic collision notification, pre-crash sensing and more.

Referred to collectively as Advanced Collision Avoidance Technologies, NHTSA says there is a need to determine the safety impact of these new and emerging technologies. Crash avoidance systems, for example, appear to be especially effective in preventing lane change crashes, less so for off-road and rear-end collisions, Kanianthra says.

“Anything you implement in a car must be transparent and totally unobtrusive,” he says, not affecting the way someone drives.

Nor can the driver be bombarded by a cavalcade of displays and things flashing and beeping.

There also needs to be consumer education to help them understand what is available and how well it works, as well as any unintended consequences they need to be aware of.

All of which likely requires closer cooperation of government and industry, Kanianthra says.

apriddle@wardsauto.com