Down Economy Plus Smarter, Safer Vehicles Help Reduce Death Toll

September 9, 2009

The death toll on the nation’s highways dropped in 2008 to 37,261, a 9.7 decrease from the 2007 total and the lowest level since 1961, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The trend continued in the first quarter of 2009; the 7,689 traffic related fatalities from January through March represent a 9 percent decline from the same period a year ago. Plus, it was the twelfth consecutive quarterly decline the U.S. DOT statistics show.

In 1970 around 55,000 people were dying on U.S. roadways every year, so recent trends are definitely going in the right direction, says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Speaking at a conference held by the Insurance Council of Texas in July 2009, Lund said much of the recent decrease in traffic fatalities has a lot to do with the economic downturn.

“When the economy tanks one of the few good things about it is people are driving less, they are driving more safely and we don’t kill as many people on the roads. That’s unfortunately why we’re down to 37,000 deaths in 2008,” Lund said. Vehicle miles traveled during the first three months of 2009 declined by about 11.7 billion miles, according to preliminary data collected by the Federal Highway Administration. Lund suggested that those numbers will start to creep back up as the economy recovers.

Aside from the economy, however, other influences have served to keep roadway deaths in check, including stricter traffic safety laws in most states and automobile safety improvements, such as side airbags and antilock brake systems. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a July 2009 announcement that increased seat belt use, a reduction in alcohol impaired driving, safer roads and highways, and improved vehicle safety have all played important roles in the declining death rate.

Top Safety Picks
Automobile manufacturers have realized that they can compete on safety, Lund said. As a result, the number of vehicles list of the IIHS’ Top Safety Pick rated automobiles has increased from around 13 or 14 a few years ago to more than 70 today. To be eligible for Top Safety Pick status a vehicle has to be a good performer for frontal crash protection, a good performer for side impact protection and a good performer for rear impact protection. “It also needs electronic stability control,” Lund said.

Real world data from automobile crashes show that side air bags in vehicles reduce the risk of fatalities by 30 percent, Lund said. “If you add the head protection you’ll see we’re up to 40 and 50 percent reductions in the risk of fatal injury,” he added, noting that every new vehicle sold in the U.S. after September of this year will be equipped with side airbags, the result of an agreement with automobile manufacturers.

While neck injuries are not life threatening, it is estimated that the insurance industry pays out between $8 billion and $10 billion a year for neck sprains caused automobile accidents. With a good rated head restraint system, as opposed to a poorly rated one, “we see about a 15 percent reduction in the likelihood there is a neck injury claim filed in a rear impact,” Lund said.

Electronic stability control (ESC), which basically is an extension of the vehicle’s anti-lock brake system, can apply the brakes to each individual wheel when it senses that the car is losing control, Lund explained. “ESC has a huge effect. We see about a 40 percent reduction in single vehicle crashes and overall about a 35 percent reduction in the risk of fatal crashes,” with ESC equipped vehicles, he said.

The IIHS plans to add another element to its list of requirements for Top Safety Pick status – vehicle roof strength. “We kill about 10,000 people each year in crashes where rollover is involved,” Lund said. One factor in whether or not one survives a rollover accident is the strength of the vehicle’s roof. The federal government requires a vehicle to support one and a half times its own weight, and “they all meet minimum standards. But there’s a range of performance out there and some manufacturers have built in a lot more protection than others,” he said.

The IIHS estimates that with a vehicle that supports four times its own weight the risk of death from a serious rollover accident is reduced by 50 percent. That standard “will be part of our Top Safety Pick program going forward,” Lund said.

Other examples of recent innovations in vehicle safety that are not yet included in criteria for Top Safety Picks but were available on vehicles in 2008 include crash avoidance technology such as forward collision warning, brake assist and lane departure warning systems. Blind spot protection and adaptive headlights that can rotate “to reveal what’s around the bend before you get to the bend,” are still other examples of new technologies designed to make driving safer, Lund said.

Challenges Going Forward
Despite more stringent traffic laws and vehicle safety improvements, Lund said in some ways driving is getting more dangerous. One of the main culprits is distracted driving in what is an increasingly multi-tasking society. Eating, applying make up and even smoking have long been seen as common but dangerous-while-driving activities. Cell phone use – both the voice and texting features – is now seen as a major contributor to the distracted driving problem.

“The thing about cell phone use is that we’ve actually been able to measure that,” Lund said. “We know that once the conversation begins there’s a four-fold increase in the risk of crashing.”

A few states and municipalities have implemented laws to prevent or limit the use of cell phones while driving and even more have enacted stricter provisions regarding seat belt use. At the same time however, travel speeds have been allowed to creep up.

Lund noted that Texas was the first state to get back to an 80 mile per hour speed limit, which is allowed in the western part of the state. Unfortunately, Lund said, “the faster you’re going out there when you crash the more likely it is that there are going to be severe consequences. And the faster you are going the more likely you are to crash in the first place.”

He also questioned whether consumers would continue to accept new safety features, such as crash avoidance technologies, some of which take automatic actions – such as braking – if they sense a crash is imminent. Lund said, for example, studies show that professional drivers tend to find the lane departure warning systems to be annoying and routinely disable them.

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