An Excuse for More of the Same

Stakeholders in the traffic safety community, including the NMA, point to the consistent downward trend in highway fatality rates from 1995 through 2011 to bolster their various positions.

Since the 1995 repeal of the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit, highway speed limits in many states have been steadily rising to 70-75 mph and beyond. So much for the “Speed Kills” argument.

Others counter that better cars, higher auto safety standards, improved roads (debatable) and better driver education (also debatable) have had a greater impact on highway safety. Their message: “Speed still kills despite all the gains we’ve made.”

So, what happens when the safety barometer (the highway fatality rate) starts to move in the opposite direction, even just a little?

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released its preliminary 2012 highway fatality statistics showing a slight uptick in the fatality rate—1.16 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), compared with 1.10 for 2011. That’s about a 5.5 percent increase but still the fourth lowest rate in 56 years (when such statistics became available).

News stories have been predictably alarmist. “In a sharp trend reversal, highway deaths rise,” says one headline. Another reports: “Grim news from America’s roads: Across the country, more people are dying in car accidents.” The stories go on to report that the increase wasn’t unexpected because people are driving more due to the improving economy. Some observers correctly state that after years of historically low motor vehicle death rates, an increase was bound to happen sooner or later.

And that’s really the point. It’s unreasonable to expect the fatality rate to continue plummeting indefinitely, although we would all welcome it. That more people died on our highways in 2012 is “grim news” indeed. But does it truly represent a “sharp trend reversal,” and is this the most constructive way to portray what’s going on? No on both counts.

Trend lines bounce around, and a slight bump in one data point shouldn’t cause a panic. Public reaction to this kind of news is typically muted, if non-existent, despite the urgent tone set by the media and others. The highway fatality rate moved up slightly in 2005 and then continued its steady downward trajectory in 2006. The same will likely happen now.

This won’t stop the safety lobby, however. We will see stepped-up calls for more traffic enforcement nationwide, more bans on certain kinds of in-vehicle behavior, more highway “safety” legislation, stricter vehicle safety standards, and a continued push toward vehicle automation.

Will more of the same old command-and-control save lives? It’s hard to say. We do know it will bring tradeoffs and unintended consequences. For example, due to increasingly stringent side impact safety standards, the door height of a typical new car is higher than on older models. This results in smaller windows all around leading to diminished views—an obvious safety hazard. And because you no longer can see out the back window, you have to pay for a backup camera with an insufficient range of view.

Sometimes the “less is more” approach is the most effective. Take the German Autobahn. Some stretches have no speed limit and traffic routinely cruises at 150 mph. Yet the 2011 fatality rate was 0.32 per 100 million VMT, according to German Federal Highway Research Institute. Astonishingly low.

The Autobahn system works thanks to consistent enforcement of, and adherence to, a few basic rules: pass on the left, yield the left lane to faster traffic and pay attention to your driving. Pretty simple … and effective.

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