TCS Daily

Safety in the Driver's Seat

By John Merline - August 31, 2006 12:00 AM

In a series of new ads for Volkswagen's Jetta, drivers merrily go about their way, yakking it up with passengers, when a terrible crash occurs. Air bags burst open. Passengers emerge relatively unscathed. And the tagline appears: Safe happens.

They are powerful commercials -- and just a tad misleading. After all, cars have been stuffed with air bags and a host of other government-mandated safety features for years. Yet more than 40,000 people still manage to die in highway accidents annually. In 2005, the number of traffic fatalities actually climbed to the highest level since 1990, according to data out this month. At the same time, the fatality rate -- the number of highway deaths per 100 million miles traveled -- hasn't moved much in years.

What gives?

Advocates schooled in the Ralph Nader approach to auto safety complain that we aren't doing enough to force additional crash protections into cars. As Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, put it, the "2005 death figures strongly show the need for effective rollover-roof crush standards."

But it's not clear why further safety refinements will produce significant fatality impacts when major improvements in the past -- chiefly the air bag -- didn't do so.

There is no doubt that cars sold in the U.S. are safer than they've ever been. Air bags, crush zones, collapsible steering wheels, padded dashboards, and other engineering changes have improved the ability of cars to absorb crash forces, while better protecting the delicate flesh and bone within. Yet, while the U.S. had the best highway safety record in the world in the mid-1960s, by 2002 it had fallen to 16th place.

Leonard Evans, a former research scientist at General Motors who is now president of Science Serving Society, compared safety records of the U.S. with those of the UK, Canada and Australia over a 23-year period. His conclusion: "if U.S. safety progress had kept pace with progress in the comparison countries, approximately 200,000 fewer Americans would have died on our roads."

Evans' extensive research in this area finds that the benefits from engineering safer cars are small compared with the safety impacts of driving behavior. Take the venerable air bag. According to Evans, driving just 2 miles per hour faster on average would effectively cancel the safety benefit of having an air bag in the car.

"The relative lack of importance of vehicle factors," Evans says, "is clear in comparing Canada and the United States -- both nations have similar vehicles, yet Canada has cut the number of traffic deaths by half."

The problem is that the U.S. -- unlike these other countries -- has focused most of its safety efforts on mandates and regulations designed to produce more crashworthy cars, rather than on efforts that would make crashes less likely in the first place. Evans notes that Canada, the UK, Australia and other countries that made big gains in auto safety did so largely through tougher enforcement of speed limits, stricter drunk driving laws, better driver training, and other efforts to improve driving behavior.

That might come across as a somewhat antithetical to our nation's libertarian impulses. After all, this is a country where only 20 states require motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

But driving isn't a just a private activity. It imposes risks on passengers, other drivers, children, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. This reality is made plain by the fact that more than half of the people who died in traffic accidents last year were not themselves the cause of the crash.

It stands to reason that if the country wants to cut back on the annual roadway carnage, it will have to do more than listen to folks like Ralph Nader and Clarence Ditlow.

John Merline is a writer living in Virginia.

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