• Nearly six million saved: the impact of auto safety regulations Thursday, March 15, 2018

    Seat belts, air bags, stricter drunk driving laws and enforcement – all have played a role in making American highways safer. And while it’s impossible to know for sure exactly how many lives have been saved as a result, a prominent authority on injury epidemiology and prevention has studied the issue and estimates an addition 5.8 million would have died on U.S. roads from 1968, when federal safety standards were first enacted for new vehicles, through 2015.

    Leon Robertson

    Leon Robertson, whose career has included faculty positions at Harvard Medical School and Yale University as well as a stint as senior behavioral scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, details his findings in a paper in the Journal of Public Health Policy. He said one of the biggest lifesavers has been state laws requiring seat belt use. Before such laws went into effect, only about 15 percent of vehicle occupants wore seat belts; that figure is now nearly 90 percent. And studies have shown use of lap and shoulder belts cut the risk of death in a crash nearly in half.

    Other important factors Robertson found include electronic stability control, limiting the tendency for vehicles to roll over; structural changes allowing vehicles to absorb more energy from impacts and reducing the effect on passengers; and stricter state licensing requirements for young drivers, who are involved in a disproportionate number of crashes.

    “If you look at the percent effectiveness of each of these death-reduction measures that occurred over the years, it is certainly plausible that you would get in that range [of 5.8 million lives saved],” Robertson told FairWarning.

    And yet it’s possible even more could be done to protect Americans on the roads. In a 2014 study, researcher Leonard Evans found that highway deaths in the U.S. went down 41 percent from 1972, when the number peaked, to 2011. But in The Netherlands, where traffic deaths also peaked in 1972, the number went down 81 percent over that same period. Evans found 24 other countries where traffic deaths went down by a greater percentage than they did in the U.S. after reaching a peak level.

    “Traffic deaths can be sharply reduced by sensible traffic laws sensibly enforced for a public aware that by far the biggest risk to them and their families is from vehicular traffic,” Evans wrote. “Speed is key – modest speed reductions produce large risk reductions. Speeders can be restrained by radar speed detection technology already successfully deployed in some countries. The goal must be to reduce injuries by preventing speeding, not to punish speeders.”

    At any rate, be very wary of attempts to roll back vehicle safety regulations and laws. They have helped to make American roads much less dangerous.

    — J.G. Preston

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