The dichotomy of highway safety

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Despite shrinking federal and state transportation budgets and a public debate over the most appropriate role of government, it's clear that a majority of Americans want government officials to do more – not less – about highway safety.” –AAA President and CEO Bob Darbelnet, discussing the results of a recent survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

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Perhaps it’s a reflecting of our conflicted national conscience on other matters, this apparent demand for more “highway safety regulation,” if the responses to AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s most recent survey are to be trusted.

I mean, it’s been overwhelming noted in the national media, in story after story, that Americas desire more government services, yet don’t want to pay more taxes to pay for it. Thus I suspect a similar mental dichotomy may be in play here where “highway safety” is concerned.

[Here’s a state-level view of how a greater focus on reducing highway fatalities and injuries might look like, from the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Toward Zero Deaths program.]

For while folks may surely call for more stringent safety enforcement, don’t doubt for a minute there will be a great hue and cry when THEY get ticketed for talking on cell phones while driving, speeding, and the like. And the good citizens won’t be too pleased to see sticker prices increase for vehicles, either, if their demand for more safety technology is met, either, I’ll bet.

But let’s take a step back here and look at what the AAA Foundation’s survey says U.S. drivers are demanding in terms of better “highway safety” efforts:

• 62% of Americans agree the U.S. needs more laws to prevent people from doing dangerous things while driving (17% disagree)

• 57% of Americans agree their respective state government needs to do more to make their roads safer (11% disagree)

• 86% of Americans agree all new drivers should be required to complete a driver education course before they can get a driver's license (3% disagree)

• A majority of Americans agree that both auto manufacturers (60%) and the federal government (41%) need to do more to make cars safer (9% and 21%, respectively, disagree)

• 70% of Americans agree that driving safety laws should be enforced more strictly (6% disagree)

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“Distracted driving” remains the big bugaboo in all of this, too, as it’s been determined by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) to be a major contributor to highway fatalities. According to NHTSA’s data, driver distraction contributes to 25% of all police-reported traffic crashes, and that nearly 5,500 people died in 2009 in crashes involving a distracted driver.

The AAA Foundation conducted its survey, by the way, April 7 – 13 with the help of Knowledge Networks, using a nationally representative sample of 920 drivers ages 18 and older – a sample the firm said is a “probability-based panel” designed to be representative of the U.S. population.

Now, the timing of this survey isn’t surprising, either, for it’s coming out ahead of the official launch of a new United Nations program dubbed (unfortunately with a VERY clunky title) the Decade of Action for Road Safety campaign, which aims to stabilize and then reduce global road deaths by 2020.

[Some of the philosophies driving this new U.N. program is reflected in Sweden’s unique Vision Zero plan to reduce highway fatalities and injuries, laid out in a meeting last year at that country’s embassy in Washington D.C.]

Here are some of the grim statistics the U.N. and other global groups, such as the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO) are trying to counteract:

• 1.3 million people are killed on the world's roads each year

• By 2020, annual road deaths globally are forecast to rise to 1.9 million

• 50 million people globally are injured, many disabled as a result

• Road deaths are the number one cause of death for young people worldwide (including in the U.S.)

• By 2015, road deaths will be the leading health burden for children over the age of five in developing countries

OK, obviously, based on just these numbers alone, highway safety is a very big and serious issue. Yet it’s worthy to note that highway safety – especially in the U.S. – has been improving at a very rapid clip, too.

According to NHTSA’s early projections, the number of traffic fatalities fell 3% between 2009 and 2010, from 33,808 to 32,788. Even more noteworthy, since 2005, fatalities have dropped 25%, from a total of 43,510 fatalities in 2005. The same estimates also project that the fatality rate will be the lowest recorded since 1949, with 1.09 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from the 1.13 fatality rate for 2009.

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Now, there are a lot of things that can be done to further along this heartening trend, such a mandatory national seat belt law, speed limit reduction, harsh national penalties for those that text or talk on the cell phone while driving, even greater use of red light cameras.

But will the general public – much less the trucking community – support such steps? In true human fashion, I think a lot of people will balk – especially on the “distracted driving” front – if not completely ignore lawmaking efforts on these fronts.

The funny thing is, data from the AAA Foundation supports this notion. It discovered as part of its 2010 Traffic Safety Culture Index that a majority of drivers (62%) feel that while talking on a cell phone is a very serious threat to safety, nearly 70% of them also admitted to talking on their phones, with a further 24% admitting to reading or sending text messages or emails while driving.

What it all boils down to is this: we might talk a good game out there in terms of calling for broad, sweeping, government-led efforts to improve highway safety, but we drivers sure don’t seem willing to “walk the talk” all that much. That’s the dichotomy policymakers must overcome if further improvements in highway safety are to occur.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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