The substantial drop in highway deaths in 2009 is great news and something we should all applaud. But this good news in no way should weaken our collective resolve to further intensify our efforts to further enhance traffic safety. 33,963 deaths is a huge number – an outrageous number. And yet, many motorists, citizens, legislators, regulators and society, in general, have for the most part accepted this huge number of traffic deaths, seemingly as the price we need to pay to enjoy our mobility.
The cars we drive and the roads we drive on are clearly safer today that they were 25 years ago, and the historical downward trend in serious traffic crashes reflect that. But, let us not forget that over the past 25 years, we have lost over one million men, women and children in traffic crashes in this country. Clearly, what some have called the disease of mobility deserves more serious attention.
Many traffic safety experts believe we could reduce this carnage by as much as 50% if we had the political courage to implement known solutions. As an example: For every mile that they drive, a 16- or 17-year-old is over 500% more likely to be involved in a fatal crash, compared to a 40-year-old. This shouldn’t be a great surprise. Learning to drive a car, at realistic speeds, on a public road, and interact safely with other traffic, is a tremendously complex undertaking. It requires skill, experience, and a mature attitude—all things that a typical 16- or 17-year-old who has been licensed for a few months is well on the way to developing, but really doesn’t have enough of yet. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept that enough teen-agers to fill a couple of large high schools are going to die on the roads every year, just because we as a society choose to value mobility.
A couple of decades ago, most states would just let a young person take a trivially-easy road test and then turn them loose on the road. Things are different now. We know that when the licensing system is designed to protect newly-licensed young drivers from the most needlessly dangerous conditions—like driving late at night or with other teen-agers in the car—and then gradually phase in more privileges as they improve their skills and gain experience, more sixteen-year-olds live to celebrate their seventeenth birthday. Every state now has at least some elements of what we call graduated driver licensing. In 2008, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 261 16-year-old drivers died on our roads. In 1995—the year before the first state graduated driver licensing system was put into place—the number was more than twice as many: 528.
Graduated driver licensing is clearly a success story. To be sure, most if not all states can still do an even better job of protecting their young novice drivers, but we have seen great success here. There are more success stories just waiting to be had. Case in point: half of all fatal crashes involve a driver inadvertently crossing over the centerline or driving off of the road. Engineers know how to keep drivers in their lanes, and how to prevent anything catastrophic from happening if somehow they do still drive out of their lane or off the road. But making roads safer requires investment, and historically, we haven’t put anywhere near enough money into making our rural roads and highways acceptably safe for our motoring public in this country.
A few years ago, the Missouri DOT decided that when you’re driving down the Interstate, you shouldn’t have to worry about a car coming from the opposite side of the highway veering out of control and ending up in your lane. These horrific crashes used to kill a couple dozen people a year on I-70. So Missouri decided to invest in some simple cable median barriers that prevent out-of-control vehicles from ending up on the wrong side of the Interstate. Now, these types of crashes have been virtually eliminated. But there are still a lot more roads in Missouri. There are a lot more roads in the United States. We can make them safer. But it won’t just happen by itself, we have to make it a priority.
At the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety we initiated new research to understand why we remain so complacent. To that end, one of the major findings is that many drivers have a “Do as I say, not as I do attitude.” For example, 80% of respondents viewed distracted driving as a serious problem. But, 2 out of 3 of those same drivers said they used their phones while driving in the last month and of those and half said they knew it increases the likelihood of being in a crash. Each of us, must look in the mirror and honestly evaluate our own attitudes and behaviors, and not just always blame the other guy for all the problems. And, now more than ever, we should all get more involved in asking our Federal, state and local road authorities, regulators and legislators to increase efforts so that one day a zero death vision will be a reality.