Do We Need A Crisis To Improve Highway Safety?

Years of reduced traffic fatalities changed last year, as highway deaths began to increase. That change may force regulators and legislatures to again focus on steps to prevent these deaths.

When things go well, people sometimes lose focus. Highway safety has been a significant concern for many years, as motor vehicle crashes have been a major cause of death and severe injuries in the United States. In the 1960s, these concerns led to increasing interest in safety features on motor vehicles and that resulted in the requirement that passenger cars be equipped with seat belts.

Since that time, numerous safety features have been added to vehicles, such as radial tires, disc brakes, tempered glass, airbags, unibody construction with crumple zones, ABS brakes and traction control. Many of these features are now mandated by regulations from government agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Steady improvements made to vehicles and roads

In addition to efforts to make vehicles better able to protect their occupants in the event of a crash, there have also been long-term efforts to improve the safety of the nation's highways. The Interstate highway system is a good example of sophisticated highway design, where many safety features are baked-in to the roads, with few drivers even recognizing their presence.

These roads have wider lanes, broader shoulders, their curves are gentler, their grades tend to be lower, they are better illuminated at night and they tend to have ample signage, helping drivers to identify where they are going long before they need to change lanes or exit the highway. They also eliminate the need for often deadly left turns and all access is controlled by interchanges. They also prohibit pedestrians and slow vehicles, like bicycles. All of this has helped to reduce crashes, collisions and the deaths and injuries they cause.

Other safety campaigns have also made a difference. The decade's long campaign to stop drunk driving, with groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) working to raise awareness and strengthen the legislatively mandated penalties that accompany the arrests and convictions. Today, it is hard to imagine that at one time "One for the road," was a socially acceptable statement.

The payoff?

All of these efforts have had a significant payoff. You may even be alive today because of this effort. In 1974, 54,589 American died on the streets and highways of the nation. If we had the same fatality rate per vehicle mile traveled in 2014, we would have seen more than 125,000 deaths.

For most, the 32,673 that did die that year was still far too many. During the last decade, the news had been mostly good. Fatalities and fatality rates had been declining. 2014 was a good year, marking the fewest highway death since Harry Truman was president.

Deaths begin to increase

Last year, the good news ended. Highway deaths increased for the first time in a decade and did so at an alarming rate. The 7.2 percent increase was the sharpest increase since 1966, ending almost 50 years of declines. The increase in deaths during in the first six months of this year was equally troubling.

The causes behind the increase are numerous and complex. More miles driven mean more drivers are exposed to a greater potential for crashes. Higher speeds in many states on multi-lane highways mean there is less margin for error and when crashes occur, they are more likely to have catastrophic consequences for the occupants. More drivers are driving drunk, failing to wear seat belts and engaging in other negligent, reckless behavior.

There is also distraction, led by the influence of texting and other uses of hand-held electronic devices. It is unclear how many crashes involving severe injuries or deaths were caused by a driver texting, reading email, watching a video or surfing the web while driving, but it is likely much greater than the statistics currently show.

The full extent of the problem is hard to measure because of variations in police reporting of crashes and the inability to always determine with certainty if a driver was on their phone in the moment before a crash.

Lack of focus?

There has been less of a push for safety recently because of the overall decline in fatal highway crashes. Legislatures, whether in Wisconsin or in Washington, are less motivated to act when opponents of regulation can point to the previously improving number and suggest "What problem?"

This stance may again become untenable if highway deaths again approach 40,000, as they could this year if the trend of the first six months of the year continues. Highway and vehicle safety improvements are often driven by crises. If legislatures and regulatory agencies need a crisis to spur their action, they may soon have that crisis.