The US government just reminded us of the scariest thing about driving a car

Boeing 747Flickr/Aero IcarusA 747 in flight — not one that crashed.

The US government is preparing to regulate self-driving cars more stringently, with new rules coming next month.

Mark Rosekind, who oversees the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), took the opportunity to remind us that as exciting as self-driving vehicles could be, they have a long way to go before they improve on one of the grimmest statistics around: the 38,000 people who are killed annually in the US in car accidents, Bloomberg’s Keith Naughton reports.

“It’s a 747 crashing every week for a year, that’s what the losses are on our highways,” Rosekind said at a conference in Michigan. “And that is unacceptable.”

The 747 comparison has been repeated often, mainly because one hasn’t gone down with a tragic total loss of life since 1996 (it was Saudi Arabian Airlines).

And it gets you thinking: that’s an alarming number of deaths every year.

In fairness, the number has declined somewhat in recent years, although it has been ticking back up as more Americans drive amid the economic recovery and cheaper gas prices.

And the auto industry has made great strides with safety since the 1980s. Nevertheless, if I told you today that almost 40,000 people would die every year in exchange for abundant personal mobility, you might question whether the personal car was such as great idea.

This is actually one of the true boons that driverless cars could deliver. Almost everyone in the auto industry thinks that they won’t just lower that grim stat — they will bring it down close to zero, someday making cars as safe as 747s.

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