Seven steps to safer roads — and why some critics hate them
Tamara E. Holmes
While the number of traffic deaths in the United States sits at a record low, nearly 33,000 crash-related deaths still occurred nationwide in 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Hoping to reduce that number even more, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has come up with a list of seven safety suggestions.
Here is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s blueprint for safer roads and why some critics think the blueprint is heading in the wrong direction.
Suggestion 1: Enact primary seat belt laws
The use of seat belts saved nearly 12,800 lives in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thirty-two states plus the District of Columbia have primary belt laws, which give police officers the authority to pull over motorists strictly for failing buckle up. Most other states have secondary belt laws, which allow police to cite a driver or passenger for not wearing a seat belt only if the motorist is being stopped for another reason.
|A group representing motorcycle riders balks at mandatory helmet laws.|
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety argues that deaths in passenger vehicles would drop by 7 percent if a switch were made from secondary to primary belt laws.
But not everyone believes that safety belts lead to safer roads. Steven Landsburg, a professor of economics at the University of Rochester, points out in his book “The Armchair Economist” that drivers wearing seat belts perceive that they face less of a threat when driving, which leads them to drive more carelessly. “The same logic would apply to any new safety feature,” Landsburg says.
Suggestion 2: Mandate helmets for all riders
In 2009, helmets saved the lives of nearly 1,500, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Twenty states and the District of Columbia require riders to wear helmets. In states that don’t have universal helmet laws, only about half of riders wear helmets. If more states mandated the use of helmets, accident-related deaths would decline, the highway safety institute suggests.
The correlation between helmets and safety is not so clear-cut, says Peter terHorst, a spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association, a nonprofit group representing motorcyclists. While the association supports the use of protective equipment such as helmets, it believes adults should be able to use that equipment voluntarily. Furthermore, the group says, helmet use alone does not ensure a motorcyclist’s safety.
“Regardless of the protective equipment worn, any motorcyclist involved in a crash is at considerable risk,” the association says in a statement supporting voluntary helmet use.
Suggestion 3: Toughen teen driver laws
Teenagers have the highest crash risk per mile traveled among all age groups. In states that have introduced graduated licensing laws, which phase in driving privileges over time, crashes are down between 10 percent and 30 percent, the highway safety institute reports. Many states have successfully passed tougher laws, because “it’s easier to get laws covering children than it is adults,” says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the institute.
Opposition to tougher teen driver laws isn’t unheard of. For example, efforts in Iowa to pass a bill that would have banned 16- and 17-year-old drivers from texting while driving drew the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union in 2008 for unfairly targeting young people.
Suggestion 4: Lower speed limits
Speeding played a part in 31 percent of traffic deaths in 2009, resulting in the loss of nearly 10,600 lives, according to the highway safety institute. Futhermore, a 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that higher speed limits on all road types led to a 3 percent increase in traffic deaths, the institute says.
The National Motorists Association disagrees. The nonprofit group, which advocates for motorists’ rights, points out that federal and state studies show drivers who are traveling significantly below average speeds actually are the ones most likely to get into accidents. Instead of arbitrarily lowering speed limits, the association suggests that speed limits be set at the level where 85 percent of motorists are driving.
“The 85th percentile speed is determined by conducting a traffic engineering survey of unimpeded traffic and noting the speed at which 85 percent of the vehicles were at or below during the course of the study,” Gary Biller, executive director of the motorists group. “Speed limits set at this level have been shown to create smaller speed variances between vehicles which, in turn, results in a safer driving environment.”
|The American Beverage Institute opposes sobriety checkpoints.|
Suggestion 5: Install red-light cameras
The running of red lights led to 676 deaths and about 130,000 injuries in 2009, the highway safety institute says. Using automated cameras to enforce traffic laws would reduce that risk, the organization argues. According to a study by the institute, red-light cameras saved 159 lives between 2004 and 2008 in the 14 largest U.S. cities that use the cameras.
The National Motorists Association finds fault with the study, pointing out that it doesn’t track the change in deaths at specific intersections where traffic cameras are located, but rather tracks the change in traffic deaths in the cities as a whole. As a result, it’s unclear whether the cameras did, in fact, lead to the reduction in traffic deaths, Biller says. Also, he says, red-light cameras can lead to rear-end collisions if drivers hit the brakes when they notice a camera.
Suggestion 6: Set up sobriety checkpoints
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates nearly 7,500 deaths would have been prevented in 2009 if all drivers had blood-alcohol levels below the legal limit of 0.08 percent. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that well-publicized sobriety checkpoints would cause the number of crashes that involve alcohol to drop by about 20 percent.
Not everyone is convinced that sobriety checkpoints are effective. For example, the American Beverage Institute, a trade group for bars, restaurants, alcohol manufacturers and alcohol distributors, suggests that police should engage in roving patrols looking for erratic drivers.
“Because checkpoints are highly visible by design and publicized in advance, they are easily avoided by these chronic drunk drivers who cause the majority of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities,” the American Beverage Institute says in a statement.
Suggestion 7: Build roundabouts
Free-flowing traffic circles are replacing traditional intersections in many parts of the country, eliminating the need for stop signs and traffic signals. Where roundabouts are installed, the number of crashes has fallen about 40 percent, the highway safety institute says.
There’s been some opposition from the general public, particularly before a roundabout is installed. However, the institute’s McCartt says, surveys have shown that drivers warm up to them over time.