Sunday, May 13, 2007

The human costs of car crashes

All too often, car crashes that kill or injure are regarded with a shrug by too many Americans. We regard crashes as the "cost" of motor vehicle travel or even blame victims for their deaths. In 2005, a total of 43,443 lives were lost on US highways, an average of 119 a day. I don't think we'd tolerate such a toll in any other area, such as plane crashes, food poisoning or tainting, US combat deaths in Iraq, or mass shootings like the horrible incident last month at Virginia Tech. Yet day after day, the killing continues on our highways, with none of the presidential campaigns, for example, even making the slightest mention of this issue. Think of it: something like school prayer gets more lip service -- the irony is that any school student can say a prayer in his/her mind at any time!

In the face of this apathy, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has issued a special issue of its newsletter Status Report that focuses on a single day in 2005: Tuesday, June 7, on which the "average" daily number of Americans perished for that year -- 119. The very real human tragedies behind the number are highlighted, with 60 of the victims named and 15 of their personal stories told.

As Adrian Lund, president of the Institute, puts it ("119 deaths in context"):

Researchers and advocates often measure highway safety progress in terms of deaths per population or mile driven, which have declined over decades. But progress has slowed in recent years. Total deaths have increased since a low of 39,250 in 1992.

This issue of Status Report reminds us of the real lives and tragedies behind the statistics. They remind us that, despite progress, crash deaths and injuries still are occurring in predictable ways. They aren't random or inevitable, and we aren't helpless to prevent them.

We should be encouraged by our past successes. Vehicles are more crashworthy than they used to be, and they're being equipped with technologies to prevent crashes in the first place. Laws addressing alcohol-impaired driving and other risky behavior have made a big difference, and roads are designed to be more forgiving when drivers make mistakes.

We need to apply this knowledge more widely. We need to evaluate new vehicle and road technologies that can help with traffic law enforcement. We need to do these things because we should do all that we're able to prevent crash deaths — and because we can.

You can read the entire issue by clicking on the link below.

IIHS Status Report special issue.

Some things that are very clear from these tragic stories include the following:

1. Always wear your seat belts, and make sure your fellow passengers do as well.

2. Always secure your children in age-appropriate child restraints and place them in rear seats.

3. Alcohol and driving are a deadly combination.

4. Control your speed. No matter what the enthusiast media state about speeding and speed limits, it's clear that excessive speed and recklessness lead all too often to death and injury. Today's cars may be more crashworthy, but their ability to protect their occupants is lost if impact speeds are equivalent to hitting a solid barrier at 45-50 mph.

5. Put down that cell phone and pay attention to your surroundings, especially the road in front of you.

6. Think twice about taking that marathon all-night drive to Florida after working a full shift. There's a reason truckers are restricted by law (too often flouted) from driving for too many hours.

7. Consider parking that motorcycle, but if you insist on using one, make sure you wear a helmet.

8. Bicyclists and pedestrians are no match for a couple of tons of steel -- watch for them and respect their space.

9. If you have teenage children drivers, make sure they follow the rules of the road and don't be hesitant about revoking their driving privileges at the first sign of problems. No parent should have to bury a child needlessly.

10. Remember that car crashes are not "accidents," as if they are random, unpredictable, or "acts of God." As Anne McCartt, senior vice president of the Institute puts it, "... if you look closely at the deaths on June 7, you see that none of the people in these stories had to die. We know how to prevent most crash deaths. We just don't always apply what we know."

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