National Consumers League

Regulations ensuring our roads have never been safer

It’s hard to measure things that don’t happen. But the recent news that Americans killed in traffic accidents has declined to the lowest point since the 1940s – especially in certain states – is evidence that people have not been dying in nearly as large numbers on our highways as they once did. This truly great news can be directly attributed to the years of work by consumer advocates, groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and government regulators.

I would like to credit auto manufacturers but it’s hard to do, given that they fought very sensible and lifesaving technologies – like seatbelts and airbags -  tooth and nail  and still fight efforts like making backup cameras standard in all  cars and trucks.  They have developed some tremendous safety technologies – like Electronic Stability Control to prevent rollover in SUVs and cars – and for that we can all be grateful.

Back to these very promising numbers. According to the Iowa State Department of Transportation, there were only 317 fatalities in Iowa in 2013 the lowest number of traffic deaths since 1944. Similar results in Ohio: 982 motorists and pedestrians died in Ohio in 2013, the lowest number since the state began keeping records in 1936. In New Jersey, state police reported 542 traffic deaths on highways and main streets in 2013, another all-time low. Eighty-five people were killed in Wyoming traffic accidents last year, the state Highway Patrol said Monday. The last time there were fewer than 100 deaths in Wyoming was in 1945. The South Carolina Highway Patrol said traffic deaths dropped by 125 over 2012 figures, a decrease of 17 percent.

According to the Washington Post, the national statistics, compiled by the Department of Transportation, won’t be released until later this year. But the early data is encouraging: In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the number of fatalities for the first half of the year had declined 4.2 percent from the same period in 2012.

When I first worked on auto safety for Consumers Union, the number of people dying on our highways each year was well over 40,000. The falling fatality numbers of today are part of a national trend that experts attribute to stronger regulation and better built cars with many safety technologies standard equipment:  head, side and lower body airbags, side, frontal and offset crash testing of cars and awarding five stars to those that perform well and sharing that information with consumers so they can make informed buying decisions. Electronic Stability Control (ESC) to prevent often deadly vehicle rollovers. We have cars that are far better designed and today auto makers not only acknowledge that safety helps sell cars but they advertise that their car or van received five star ratings in crash tests. That is progress!

The reduction in numbers is especially good news when we consider that the number of vehicles in the United States has increased significantly. The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported there were 253 million registered vehicles in the United States in 2011, compared with just 161 million in 1980.

The AAA says that younger drivers and passengers are less likely to be involved in fatal accidents than in years past. The number of fatalities among adolescents between age 10-15 fell by almost 4 percent between 2011 and 2012, the last year for which federal statistics are available, while the number of teens who died in accidents fell by 5.7 percent.

How many parents have their teenagers alive and well today? How can we count these priceless lives saved?  These are young people who might have otherwise died on the road  had we not had strong education campaigns about drinking and driving and cars designed to withstand crashes far more effectively.

Consumer advocates and those who support us should be shouting from the hilltops that sensible regulations requiring safer cars and testing of those cars and advertising which are safest has saved thousands of lives this year and will likely continue to do so in the future. NCL is proud to be among the groups that have long advocated for strong safety regulations for automotive vehicles  and we can see from these very uplifting reports, our efforts have paid off handsomely.