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April 4, 2011

Celebrating (and learning from) extraordinary reductions in highway deaths

DD stats Because bad news always gets much more attention than good news, the latest great news concerning highway fatalities coming from official statistics did not get nearly as much attention as it should.  Here are the AP story highlights, with commentary to follow:

Highway deaths have fallen to levels not seen since the Korean War, helped by more people wearing seat belts, better safety equipment in cars and efforts to curb drunken driving.

The Transportation Department estimated Friday that 32,788 people were killed on U.S. roads in 2010, a decrease of about 3 percent from 2009.  It's the fewest number of deaths since 1949 — during the presidency of Harry Truman — when more than 30,000 people were killed. Since 2005, highway deaths have fallen about 25 percent.

The Pacific Northwest region, which includes Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, saw fatalities fall 12 percent. Western states including Arizona, California and Hawaii also posted large declines.

Government officials said the number of deaths was still significant but credited efforts on multiple fronts to make roadways safer.  "Too many of our friends and neighbors are killed in preventable roadway tragedies every day," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "We will continue doing everything possible to make cars safer, increase seat belt use, put a stop to drunk driving and distracted driving and encourage drivers to put safety first."...

[P]eople spent more time in their cars last year, making the estimates more noteworthy. The number of miles traveled by American drivers in 2010 grew by 20.5 billion, or 0.7 percent, compared with 2009, according to the Federal Highway Administration.  The number of miles traveled increased slightly in 2009 after declines in the previous two years.

Separately, the rate of deaths per 100 million miles traveled is estimated to have hit a record low of 1.09 in 2010, the lowest since 1949.  The previous record was in 2009, which had a rate of 1.13 deaths per 100 million miles traveled.  "It's a really good sign that fatalities are down despite the fact that (vehicle miles traveled) is up," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Harsha said fewer people were dying because of a number of factors related to vehicle technologies, safer driving and road designs.  Safety equipment such as side air bags that guard the head and midsection in a crash and anti-rollover technology like electronic stability control are becoming standard equipment on new cars and trucks.

Judie Stone, president of the safety group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the proliferation of air bags in new cars, beyond the frontal air bags used to protect the driver and front-seat passenger, was making a difference.  "In addition to having more cars with air bags, you have more air bags in cars," Stone said.

Many states have been more vigilant on drunken driving.  Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities fell more than 7 percent in 2009 from the previous year.  And seat belt use, the most basic defense in a crash, reached an all-time high of 84 percent in 2009.  Several states have allowed police to stop a vehicle for failure to wear a seat belt even if the officer doesn't detect another driving violation like speeding.

John Whatley, who serves as interim president and chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the numbers showed that "auto travel today is safer than ever before — not because of an economic slump, but because automakers have worked with other stakeholders to bring innovation to autos."

The full report from the US Government providing an "Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities in 2010" is available here

As my post title reveals, my first reaction to this news is to celebrate.  Many more American die each year from roadway deaths than any other man-made threat (e.g., there have been only about 15,000 homicides per year in the US recently), and it appears that going for a drive is now safer for all of us than ever before in modern times.

My second reaction to this news is to encourage all folks concerned about public safety to look for refined and repeatable lessons from this success story.  It seems that a combination of public policies, including having the criminal justice system in a supportive but not leading role, has helped contribute to these developments.  Thus, whether the concern is drug use or gun violence or sex offenses, it may be a refined combination of public policies with the criminal justice system in only a supportive role that helps achieves the greatest public safety success.

April 4, 2011 at 11:28 AM | Permalink


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Yes. Much to learn from these statistics.

1) Clustering of Factors. Transportation safety investigators view crashes as a result of the clustering of several factors in a time and location. One can often identify 12. Prevent any one, even a minor, weak factor, and there is no crash at all. This analysis of crashes has no room for the chain of causation analysis from 13th Century nor for the Scholasticist view of the role of God in accidents. So the chain of causation analysis in torts litigation no longer meets Daubert standards. This clustering of factors analysis should apply to all serious crime before they can get solved and prevented. Example. Criminal is a vicious predator, yes. However, someone let him out before he changed. His parole officer does not clamp down when urines are positive for illegal drugs. The abolitionist has blocked 123D.

2) Technology. The explanation for progress is technology. Agreed. Add trauma care learned in war. The hundreds of deaths in war a year have saved thousands of lives back home by improvements in trauma care. In Vietnam, the Golden Hour principle emerged, so there were long helicopter rides to medical facilities. Now, no more long helicopter rides. The surgeon and team are at the front now. This improvement also may account entirely for the drop in murders. One would have to do a study of trends in attempted murders, and what fraction of victims survive. Here is the irony. The lawyer claims the legal system has contributed and is a factor in the improvement of outcomes. The lawyer is a huge anchor, disruptor, and enemy of technology, innovation. He will attack all technology with ruinous, frivolous lawsuits. In law school, and in law textbooks, its is like Mein Kampf for the plaintiff bar. Yet, try to bring the idea of tort liability to the lawyer and judge professions, and one is personally attacked. Votes will be taken to expel the person for clutter.

3) Obsoleteness of pointless transportation. People no longer need to travel as much. They got the internet.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 5, 2011 12:39:05 AM

Thank you for sharing,it is very helpful and I really like it!

Posted by: Big pony | Apr 11, 2011 6:03:00 AM

I've been reading that in the future we will have technology that will enable the cars to drive themselves, self-driving cars so to speak. Supposedly these should be even safer and allow for less accidents since they are "controlled".

Posted by: Used Cars Richfield Mn | Apr 13, 2011 6:28:25 PM

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