TCS Daily

Dying to Get There?

By Brock Yates - May 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Here we go again with the annual media hysteria about death and carnage on the American highways. The eye-rolling and hard breathing is based on news from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that in 2002 a total of 42,850 people went to their great reward on the nation's roads. This was the highest since 1990, when the toll was 44,599. On the surface the increase ought to elicit fear and loathing among motorists everywhere.

But wait a minute. Before we reflexively scream in outrage about the number, perhaps we ought to examine the issue beyond the predictable media hype.

For openers, the death rate remains unchanged at 1.51 fatalities for every 100 million miles traveled. That's 100 million miles between every death - an amazing statistic when considering the trillions of tons of rolling stock plying the roads every day and the mind-boggling amounts of kinetic energy unleashed. The point: riding in an automobile on America's public roads is a safe activity, given a sober and fit driver, a properly maintained automobile, and normal weather conditions.

Keep in mind that while the number of fatalities increased, NHTSA reports that Americans drove 48 billion more miles in 2002 than the year before. No doubt seat belt laws, air bags, better tires, and more crashworthy body structures helped keep the damage relatively low, considering the anomalies that distort the seemingly alarming total:

  • Of the 48,850 people who died, over 3,000 were pedestrians, most of whom were jaywalkers. Thousands of others were riding motorcycles and bicycles, driving big-rig trucks and farm implements on public roads;

  • Half of the total deaths involved alcohol or drugs, illegal and legal;

  • If highways and automobiles had not been improved since statistics were first kept in 1966, the death toll would now be 132,000 a year, or three times as large. Clearly, massive progress has been made, even as speed limits have increased on interstates where safe speeds of 70 to 80 miles per hour are routinely maintained.

Of course the pols and the press continue to flog the dead horse known as SUVs, despite their growing appeal among car buyers. Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the administrator of NHTSA, last year trumpeted the news that SUV rollovers had increased 24 percent over the past 12 months. Sadly ol' Jeff read his press release incorrectly, in that the actual number was 2.4 percent - a foolish error the national press did not bother to correct.

Undeterred, Runge recently noted that 53 percent of the increase in deaths in 2002 was attributable to pickups and SUV rollovers. What he did not mention was that the number totaled only about 360 people, a tiny number from a statistical standpoint when it is recalled that over 220 million motor vehicles travel American highways, driven by tens of millions of motorists in all manner of weather conditions.

While the loss of 48,000 fellow citizens is unfortunate, when the number is analyzed, the fact that it is so low borders on the miraculous. The reality: despite all the fear mongering and headline grabbing, the American public views travel in a private passenger vehicle - be it a car, pickup or SUV - as a low-risk activity.

Presuming one is alert, reasonably prudent and driving in safe weather conditions, there is a better chance of being killed in a household accident than in a motor vehicle.

Stay sober, pay attention, drive within the limits of your skills and your automobile and your safe arrival is practically guaranteed. Trust me on that. And quit reading the papers.

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