A Strange Indifference to Highway Carnage

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The political rhetoric over health care this election season may leave voters confused, but they can be sure of at least this much: One of America’s more egregious public health afflictions, deaths and injuries in car crashes, is being massively ignored.

This should be a warning sign to the American people, since political leaders and their families, like the rest of us, are not immune from firsthand encounters with highway tragedies. President Clinton’s biological father died after being ejected in a car crash in the 1940s. As a teenage driver in the 1960s, Laura Bush struck and killed a family neighbor in a crash.  President Obama’s father died in a car wreck in 1982. In 1972, Vice President (then U.S. Senator) Joseph Biden’s wife and infant child were killed in a car-truck collision. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, as a young Mormon missionary, was severely injured in a collision in France that killed another passenger. These experiences mirror those of millions of ordinary Americans, yet they have failed to prod the nation’s policy leaders into aggressive action to stem the carnage.

Despite more than 30,000 deaths and more than 2.2 million crash injuries per year, highway safety has largely fallen off the political radar screen.  Since 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson publicly confronted a hostile auto industry by demanding, and getting, new laws governing the safety of automobiles, more than two million Americans have died of crash injuries. Since then no president has taken a forceful public stand in favor of strong government action to counter the death toll.

The laws promoted by Johnson and subsequent regulations and policies have helped,  leading to safer auto designs, better roads, and drunk driving and seat belt laws – proving that good government can save lives and livelihoods. But crash injuries are still the leading cause of death to children, teenagers and young adults, and a major cause of violent death for all age groups.

Since 1981 — when the Reagan administration put coal industry lobbyist Ray Peck in charge of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, attempted to revoke air bag regulations, and cut the agency staff by one-third — the agency has been increasingly captive to the industry it was formed to regulate.

In place of decisive action, the government’s severely underfunded, industry- influenced highway safety efforts are routinely reactive, accomplishing too little, too late, for too many Americans.  When the auto industry began marketing unstable, top-heavy SUVs in the 1980s, NHTSA, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, refused to adopt vehicle regulations limiting the rollover risk of such vehicles – which ended up contributing to some 10,000 deaths a year in rollover crashes. When Toyota drivers experienced  sudden unintended acceleration episodes, NHTSA lacked the resources and expertise to address the complex but foreseeable risks of sudden acceleration from sophisticated electronic controls now standard in new vehicles.

Although current Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland have highlighted the perils of driver distraction, car companies still are racing to add infotainment features to new models – some of them featuring video display screens on their instrument consoles – that are bound to further divert drivers’ eyes and attention from the road. The mounting safety risk from infotainment systems seems to be widely viewed as inevitable and beyond society’s ability to control. Meanwhile, Texas has adopted an 85 mph speed limit for a soon-to-open toll road, a move likely to be copied by other states, but that would be off the table if safety was a prime concern.

What underlies the widespread toleration of highway mayhem by politicians, regulators, and the public?  Political indifference has a high cost in lost  lives, livelihoods and wellness. If the commitment were there, we believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of lives could be saved by a single measure: making electronic automatic crash notification systems standard, thus reducing delays in treating seriously injured crash victims.

But for whatever reasons, this country lags far behind other advanced nations in coming to grips with the problem. According to World Health Organization estimates, per capita road deaths in many countries are well below the U.S. Yet there is no demand to draw lessons from other countries to take tough steps that would protect American motorists.

From 2008 until early this year, U.S. road deaths fell substantially – in part due to the great recession — setting the stage for further complacency. But in the first quarter of this year the deaths turned upward, doubtless signaling an increase in driving as the economy began to modestly improve. If the upward trend continues, it will be a further signal to policymakers that the U.S. needs to be doing much more to curb lethal violence on its highways.

(Ben Kelley, a former Department of Transportation official, is on the board of the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Auto Safety. Louis Lombardo is an auto safety researcher who retired from NHTSA after 27 years and now writes on the subject at www.CareForCrashVictims.com)

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7 comments to “A Strange Indifference to Highway Carnage”

  1. Art Weber

    Four times as many U.S. residents have been killed in motor vehicle accidents as there were U.S. military personnel killed in all our nation’s wars since the Revolution in 1776. In 2009 33,808 persons were killed, and 2,217,000 injured in traffic accidents. What happened to all the conscientious objectors? Are there any physicians or clergymen among them? Do those 2,217,000 injuries make up a significant portion of the medical industry’s client base?

    I’m not aware that any of our so-called transportation and urban planning “experts” know whether any particular mode of transportation might be considered a natural right. But human babies continue to arrive with a pair of legs “factory-installed,” not with wheels, fins, flippers, or wings. And driving a motor vehicle is not a right — it’s a privilege.

    There have been attempts to challenge a DMV revocation or denial of a drivers license on the grounds that it violates one’s constitutional right to travel. But California courts have rejected that claim and upheld the DMV action.

    Perhaps we should forget about vague terms like “Smart Growth,” “New Urbanism,” etc., and try to focus on which professions (physicians and clergymen, or architects and urban planners) are best qualified to determine which transportation mode or modes should be considered natural rights. Instead of offering incentives and cheerleading for developers wouldn’t it serve humanity more effectively if we mandated that all urban and suburban development have adequate alternatives to the automobile (including public transit and sidewalks) so it will all be at least as accessible and functional for non-motorists as it is for those who drive?

    Insurance policies don’t prevent accidents. It seems like a form of child endangerment when parents decide to raise their offspring where there’s no adequate alternative to the automobile.

    There’s nothing in the Ten Commandments or United States Constitution that says we must be fruitful and multiply. How many wannabee parents think of that when deciding to generate more children? It certainly seems like bad manners to gamble on the life or well-being of another person without first getting that person’s permission.

  2. Matthew Mabey

    This article is misleading to factually flawed. To quickly see through this, check-out the numbers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year.

    As a previous poster noted, you can’t legislate away stupidity. If people today drove as carefully and defensively in today’s cars as they did in the 1950′s and 60′s, and we had as little congestion on our roads as back then, and we had as low of rates of DUI as we do currently, then we might achieve what the author’s advocate. As it is, the better brakes get, the closer people follow the car in front of them, some people still drink and drive and we pack the roads with pointless trips. A by product of the super-safe cars of today is that they weigh twice as much as they would otherwise. This results in a great increase in fuel consumption and the associated pollution…

  3. Louis V. Lombardo

    Thank you to Fair Warning and its readers. You do important work alerting the public to real safety and health needs and possible solutions.

    In furtherance of that work it may help to pass along some facts and principles that have guided my work.

    In what I think of as a 112 year U.S. war against crash deaths and serious injuries, let’s keep in mind that:

    * More than 3.5 million Americans have died of crash injuries in the U.S.
    * An estimated 12 million Americans have suffered serious crash injuries in the U.S.
    * Using current U.S. DOT value of $6.2 million per life lost, costs would be $22 Trillion.
    * Our government provides no estimates of tears associated with tragedies.

    * Currently about 100 Americans lose their lives to crash injuries on an average day.
    * Currently about 56 Americans die of crash injuries each day without transport to any facility for medical treatment.

    A guiding principle I learned from Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed”, Dr. William Haddon’s work on crash injuries, Ben Kelley’s work, and Joan Claybrook’s leadership is:

    * People are human and humans make mistakes. The question for society is how do we build a system that is fail safe so that people don’t have to pay for mistakes with their lives or the lives of others?

    Think of a President with the courage of a John F. Kennedy. JFK challenged the nation to put mankind on the moon and bring them back alive within a decade — using 1960′s technology — and we succeeded.

    Imagine a President challenging the nation to create a transportation system where people can venture forth and and return alive — using 21st century technology.

    Safety researchers around the world believe this is a worthy goal that we should aim to achieve in a decade.

    We can and must do better at protecting motorists.

    Lou

  4. Behram Parekh

    The US has some of the safest roads in the world when looked at not on a per capita basis, which is misleading, but on a per miles driven basis. Further, studies have shown that the vast majority of accidents do not occur on our interstate highway system, but on local roads, and that the increase in speed limits from 55 to 65 & 70 has not resulted in ANY increase in accidents or fatalities, rather, those rates have continued to decrease. While driver distraction is a huge problem, an increase in speed limits is not. And while the article points out the problems with the proliferation of infotainment systems in cars, it provides no suggestions for a solution to driver distraction. Driving every day, I see dozens of people texting, applying makeup, reading newspapers, and all sorts of idiotic things while driving in stop-and-go traffic, and this despite living California, where texting and driving is illegal and results in a multi-hundred dollar ticket.

    Car makers have made many strides towards increasing safety, such as automatic brake application for both forward & reverse (see the new Honda & Infiniti as examples), lane departure warnings (cadillac and others), blind spot monitoring (many car companies), all of which are designed to reduce the likelihood of an accident from a distracted driver.

    At the end of the day, government cannot outlaw stupidity.

  5. Steve Lang

    I take the point that the authors think NHTSA could and should do more, and I see the nod to the lower death rate of recent years in the final paragraph. But even if it’s true that “highway safety has largely fallen off the political radar screen,” the article leaves the impression that overall things are worse on the highways. But that’s not true. Interested readers might want to take a look at an amazing chart in “The New York Times” from about a week ago, which shows that highway fatalities per 100,000 people are about a third of what they were at their peak in the late ’60s, even as people are traveling twice as many miles today as they were then.

    See here: http://tinyurl.com/9vxncj7

    Steve Lang

  6. Barbara Kloster

    If the Department of Transportaion doesn’t care about safety on trains, why should they care about safety in cars. I am sure the automobile industry has lobbyists that are just as strong and just as rich as the train industry. The Department of Transportation has failed the citizens of the United States in more ways that I can even mention. All they think about is begger and faster, no matter how many lives are lost. Maybe it will have to hit home with Ray LaHood before anything will ever be done.
    Speed limits will be raised Nationwide so they can keep up with another useless intity, the bullet train. Need I say more?

  7. Mary Kay Kidwell

    Excellent article! Thanks so much for sharing, and especially for caring.

    Just after reading your article I came across this one: http://www.usatoday.com/money/cars/story/2012/09/24/car-distractions/57838182/1. Oh yeah, that’s the answer, adjust the font on display screens. According to this study, “Text in cars is here to stay.” I don’t know how I survived 50 years of driving without a display screen!

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