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Traffic deaths at 47-year low; thank the recession

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported good news Thuesday: The death rate  on the  nation's roads fell to the lowest point since 1961 last year.

The agency tabulated 37,261 highway deaths in 2008, a drop of 9.7 percent from 2007. According to NHTSA, the fatality rate last year was 1.27 persons per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled, down about 7 percent from  the 2007 rate of 1.36. Motorcycle fatalities  bucked the trend, rising for the 11th straight year.

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That's encouraging, but the best explanation is  not.

Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway Safety. warned that excessive sellf-congratulation is not warrantted.

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This is no great surprise, given the economic recession the entire nation was, and is experiencing," Stone said.   "In previous recessions – the early 1980s and early 1990s – a similar dramatic drop in car crash fatalities was evident, due to greatly reduced exposure and many fewer discretionary trips taken by motorists.

"Although it is always heartening to know fewer people died and suffered injuries in motor vehicle crashes, we cannot rely on poor economic conditions to ensure major progress in traffic safety, especially because historical trends tell us the numbers will reverse as the economy improves.  There are still nearly 40,000 people dying on the nation's roads, and hundreds of thousands more sustain life-changing and debilitating injuries on an annual basis."

Stone went on to recommend that Congress act on a series of measures intended to keep the trend lline going down even as the economy recovers.

The list is just a click away:

● H.R.1895, Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection (STANDUP) Act, sponsored by Reps. Tim Bishop (D-NY), Michael Castle (R-DE) and Chris Van Hollen, Jr. (D-MD).  The 2007 FARS data shows that at least 7,500 people died in teen-related crashes, the majority of them teens.  These tragedies often happen one or two at a time, so the outrage about the public epidemic these numbers represent is muted.  Every death, especially of a child, is a terrible waste, particularly when we know that there are proven solutions in comprehensive graduated driver licensing programs that can prevent many of these tragedies.  H.R. 1895 would go a long way toward reducing these staggering figures that represent incalculable harm in the lives of very real people.

● Primary Enforcement Seat Belt Laws in Every State.  The Surface Transportation Assistance Act  (STAA) of 2009, currently proceeding through the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, wisely includes a provision that would encourage every state to pass a primary enforcement seat belt use law, allowing police enforcement officials to stop motorists for not using a seat belt without first having to ticket them for another violation.  These laws have proven effective in raising seat belt use rates and saving lives.  States that do not enact such a law in three years would be sanctioned a portion of their federal-aid highway funds until they enact the belt law upgrade.  30 states and DC currently have primary enforcement authority in their laws; this provision would result in all 50 states enforcing optimal safety belt laws and higher use rates across the nation.  Advocates worked for adoption of this key safety measure in the STAA of 2009 and strongly urges the full committee to keep it in the bill.

● Electronic On-Board Recorders in All Commercial Vehicles in Interstate Commerce.  The STAA of 2009 also requires that interstate trucks (at or above 10,000 pounds) and buses (that carry eight or more passengers for compensation)  be equipped with electronic on-board recorders  that will reduce driver fatigue by improving enforcement of the current lax hours-of-service reporting system.  This is a crucial reform that Advocates and other safety groups have petitioned the Department of Transportation to implement for many years.

● Stronger State Ignition Interlock Impaired Driving Laws.  The STAA 2009 also provides that states adopt impaired driving laws that require the use of ignition interlock devices on vehicles of drivers convicted of impaired driving, upon first offense and thereafter.  This provision will accelerate the pace of adoption of important laws that will deter drunk and drugged driving in every state, reducing the toll of nearly 12,000 people who die annually in alcohol-involved auto crashes.

 

 

 

 

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