U.S. highway deaths fewest since 1950


Nearly 2.3 million Americans were killed or injured in traffic crashes last year. Believe it or not, that’s good news.

The 33,808 U.S. highway deaths recorded in 2009 were the fewest since 1950, when Americans drove just one-sixth the number of miles they did last year. And the traffic injury count of 2.2 million was the lowest in 22 years of national record-keeping.

Obviously, these are still daunting sacrifices in pursuit of the mobility and economic benefits of motor vehicle transportation. Traffic crashes remain the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 3 and 34. Record-low fatalities are cold comfort for tens of thousands of families mourning their loved ones.

But the numbers show steady progress in the fight to make our streets and highways less risky to life and limb. Safety experts say this is due to safer cars, full of new crash avoidance and crash worthiness features; safer roadways, with better design, signs, signals, lighting and crash barriers; and safer drivers, prodded to prudence by tougher rules of the road. Prompter medical care gets some of the credit, too.

Most further reductions in highway carnage will depend on increased deployment of the best anti-crash feature of them all – a safety-belted, sober, attentive driver. While overall U.S. seat belt use now exceeds 80 percent, more than half of those killed in 2009 hadn’t buckled up. Nearly a third of last year’s fatalities were blamed on alcohol impairment. And too many crashes still are caused by drivers distracted by cell phone conversations or text messages.

I have to wonder if those folks are the target market for crash avoidance technologies like those now being heavily advertised by Mercedes-Benz. “I had no idea the truck was right in front of me, but my car did,” goes a testimonial in one of the TV ads. Well, why not? Weren’t you watching? What was more important to keep an eye on than the road right in front of you?

This reminds me of many Americans’ insistence on driving the biggest, heaviest vehicle they can afford, on the theory that colliding with something smaller will minimize injury to No. 1. This impulse, too, is based on the myth that our motorways are wild, dangerous places where disaster lurks beyond the control of the helpless individual.

In fact, public-sector efforts in roadway and mandated vehicle safety, enforcement and research-based traffic laws have greatly reduced such risks. But individuals have to do their part as well. A sober driver who buckles up and focuses on the task at hand brings those risks down practically to zero.