In its recent Status Report publication “Low-Hanging Fruit,” the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that seven proven countermeasures could immediately reduce the number of U.S. motor vehicle related fatalities. All but one is behavioral in nature and some would require states to enact and enforce potentially controversial laws.
“Tried and true countermeasures like these usually don’t grab headlines, but if they were more widely propagated across the nation they would yield an immediate reduction in motor vehicle crash deaths,” said Adrian Lund, Institute president.
“While we’re looking for the next big breakthrough in vehicle safety, we should keep in mind that many existing strategies at the driver and passenger level still can yield gains,” added Lund. “Not only can most of these countermeasures be put to work now, but the benefits also would be swift.”
A stumbling block is getting the public and state and local politicians on board with proposed changes. Red light cameras and speed cameras are especially divisive, Lund said, even though public opinion surveys show solid support for using cameras to enforce traffic laws.
“We already have the tools to address these problems,” Lund said, “but they need to be better utilized.” Basic doesn’t mean easy, he added. “Making headway in many cases would require some state lawmakers to make bold moves to enact tough, enforceable laws.”
The seven countermeasures and their expected benefits include:
• Enact primary belt laws: IIHS recommends that all states enact laws requiring all drivers and passengers to wear a seat belt and allowing law enforcement to stop and ticket motorists solely for not buckling up. NHTSA estimates that seat belts saved 12,713 lives in 2009 and would have save an additional 3,688 lives if all vehicle occupants age five or older involved in fatal crashes had been properly restrained. The report notes that increasing the fines for seat belt nonuse could also result in increased belt use and thus fewer fatalities.
• Lower speed limits: The Status Report indicates that speeding was a factor in 31% of all traffic fatalities in 2009, responsible for 10,591 lives lost. An American Journal of Public Health study found that increased speed limits were responsible for a 3% jump in highway traffic deaths across all road types, with rural interstates seeing the highest increase of 9%. The same study suggests that 12,545 deaths were the result of increased speed limits across the U.S. between 1995 and 2005. IIHS notes the American Trucking Assns. endorses a 65 mph speed limit for all vehicles to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions.
• Use automated enforcement: Using cameras to enforce red light running and speeding has been shown to cut down on both behaviors. An IIHS analysis found that 159 lives were saved due to red light cameras in 2004-2008 in the 14 largest U.S. cities with such cameras in operation. While speed cameras are less common in the U.S., programs in Maryland and Arizona resulted in the proportion of drivers exceeding speed limits by more than 10 mph dropping by 70% and 95%, respectively.
• Conduct sobriety checkpoints: Sobriety checkpoints are another proven tool to reduce crashes and fatalities. However, they must be conducted frequently and be well publicized. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), alcohol-related crashes fall about 20% when well-publicized checkpoints are conducted. Currently, only 38 states and the District of Columbia conduct checkpoints.
• Build roundabouts: IIHS suggests that roundabouts can improve not only safety, but also traffic flow. Studies have found that roundabouts are associated with a 40% reduction in crashes and an 80% reduction in injury-related crashes. Roundabouts significantly lower the risk for serious right-angle, left-turn, and head-on collisions because vehicles travel in the same directions and at much slower speeds, the Institute notes. The Federal Highway Administration says roundabouts should be considered for all new intersections on federally funded highway projects.
• Mandate helmets for all riders: According to NHTSA, motorcycle helmets saved 1,483 lives in 2009. However, 732 more riders could be alive today if all motorcyclists had been wearing helmets that year. IIHS notes that nearly all motorcyclists wear helmets in states that require helmet use by all riders. In states that require only certain riders to be helmeted (or do not require helmets at all), observations indicate only about half of riders don protective headgear.
• Toughen teen driver laws: A proven way to reduce the risk of teen driver crashes is through graduated driver licensing (GDL), which allows novice drivers to phase in their driving in stages that limit the number of passengers or restrict driving during nighttime hours. While all states have some form of GDL, the components vary. IIHS suggests that delaying unrestricted licensure to age 17 would lower the fatal crash rate among 15- to 17-year-olds by 13%. The report notes that both parents and their teens respond favorably to strong GDL laws.
Download the full report at www.iihs.org/externaldata/srdata/docs/sr4607.pdf.