U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week released the latest statistics on highway deaths and injuries with no small measure of pride. In 2009, the U.S. had its safest year on the roads with the fewest deaths since 1950 and the lowest death rate per miles traveled recorded since motor vehicles were mass produced in this country.
Mr. LaHood and others in Washington were quick to credit their own safety initiatives. But they might also have expressed gratitude for the recession: Historically, traffic fatalities decline in period of economic decline (fewer jobs mean less commuting, fewer deliveries, etc.), and the government's claim that highway use actually increased slightly last year seems dubious.
Certainly, the decline in deaths is welcome. It reflects a long list of related improvements of recent years from safer, air bag-equipped cars to improvements in life-saving emergency medicine. Even worsening urban traffic congestion plays a role as slow-moving traffic is less likely to result in life-threatening injury when vehicles collide.
But the danger in touting such progress is that it will be regarded as acceptable. To be satisfied with 33,808 deaths in a single year is to tolerate the toll of 10 Sept. 11 attacks or more than seven times the number of U.S. military who have died in Iraq since 2003. Traffic-related crashes remain the leading cause of death for Americans age 3 to 33.
The country may have experienced a decade's worth of gradual decline in highway deaths, but such incremental improvement is still, well, incremental. When measured against other industrialized countries, the U.S. record in highway safety is not particularly good.
European countries fare much better, and even Australia and Canada, countries that are more car-oriented and perhaps more comparable to the U.S., have per capita fatality rates one-third or more lower than the U.S., according to the World Health Organization.
Admittedly, Mr. LaHood recognized that U.S. roads can be made safer, and last week he once again talked about his efforts to reduce driver distraction from such things as texting and talking on cell phones while driving. But he needs to go much further still.
Many states don't require all motorcyclists to wear helmets, more than one-third don't give police the authority to pull someone over for not wearing a seat belt, others fail to restrict teen driving to recommended standards. The trucking industry is lobbying Washington to allow heavier big rigs on the road.
In Maryland, lawmakers this year shamefully rejected efforts to require drivers found guilty of drunk driving to have ignition interlocks (breath test devices tied to a vehicle's ignition system) installed in their cars. That's a measure that's proven to reduce DWI-related deaths and serious injury by as much as 30 percent.
Perhaps most shockingly, legislation to beef up the federal car safety programs languishes in Congress. Drafted in the wake of the Toyota Motor Corp's recall of 9 million vehicles for potential sudden acceleration, the House and Senate proposals would raise fines and give the government the resources to better scrutinize cars and trucks. But the regulatory push has lost considerable steam as mid-term elections draw near.
U.S. roads may have been slightly safer in 2009 than the year before, but the system has a long way to go before it can be judged acceptable.