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Safer at Most Speeds

Let’s celebrate some good news, before some qualifications are considered. Traffic fatalities in the U.S.A have dropped to a 60 year low. There were 33,808 deaths in 2009—a 9.7 percent decline from the previous year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety administration (NHTSA). The reduction was across the board from passenger vehicles, light trucks, large trucks, motorcycles and pedestrians.

Since 1966 when the motor vehicle and highway safety laws were passed by Congress—led by Democrats but with significant Republican support—the fatality rate dropped from 5.49 percent (50,894 lives lost) to 1.13 percent in 2009 (33,808 lives lost.) This large live-saving reduction occurred while absolute vehicle miles traveled increased more than threefold in those intervening decades.

These sharp reductions in “accidents” did not happen by chance. They came about because the national highway safety mission was enacted into law.

The national policy to address a major public safety epidemic—started with the Congressional outrage following General Motors and its clumsy attempt to have private detectives try to “dig up dirt” on me before and after publication of my book “Unsafe at Any Speed” in November 1965.

Extensive Congressional hearings in the Senate and the House pulled together the overwhelming evidence that the auto companies were suppressing the use of long-available safety devices and selling style and horsepower over safety and fuel efficiency. Forty-four years ago in September 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the legislation and presented me with one of the pens at the White House ceremony.

The deliberate legislative process worked as it was supposed to work. The press and TV in Washington and Detroit covered the Auto Safety developments week after week in 1966 as a regular reporting beat instead of just an occasional feature. This kept the heat on any recalcitrance by members of Congress. The auto company executives had their say at hearings and proved unpersuasive.

NHTSA was established as an agency in the Department of Transportation with Dr. William Haddon, a very knowledgeable scholar and specialist in trauma prevention on the highway? NHTSA was given regulatory authority to establish mandatory safety standards, require vehicle defect recalls and research advanced prototype safety vehicles suitable for mass production.

Intelligent, experienced people went to work for NHTSA to tackle this fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. integrating vehicle, highway and driver inputs. Useful research and testing expanded rapidly along with motorist expectation levels for safer vehicles.

Far fewer people were losing their lives and incurring serious injuries due to greater seat-belt usage, better air bags, brakes and tires, stronger enforcement of drunk-driving laws, improvements in highway design right down to “hot spot” corrections at high-casualty locations.

More recently, the wider adoption of electronic stability controls and better collision avoidance capabilities augur even better safety on the roads.

Along the way since 1966, however, there were many missed opportunities, delays, suppression of needed upgrades of existing vehicle and tire standards, and avoidance of necessary recalls. Many lives have been lost and injuries inflicted as a result of such callousness.

Pressure came from the auto company lobbying operation and their friends in the White House and Congress, especially their powerful perennial defender, Democrat John Dingell from Michigan, who almost never saw a safety standard or fuel efficiency upgrade he liked. On the consumer side have been long-time advocates Joan Claybrook and Clarence Ditlow.

In the past decade, distracted drivers using cell phones and other electronic gadgets are involved in the loss of over 1000 lives a year. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood has made this growing peril a major cause.

With the rise in the number of motorcycles to 11 million, there has been a steady rise in motorcycle fatalities over the years. This is due in no small part to 30 states not having a mandatory helmet law. “Along with taxes and weather, there is the certainty that no mandatory helmet laws leave more motorcyclists dead on the highway,” says Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “It’s like having a cure for AIDS over twenty years and not applying it in certain states,” she added.

Safety laws have to be updated and strengthened from time to time. Currently a bill is moving through Congress, largely opposed by industry, to toughen the weak penalty provisions, strengthen some safeguards against newly discovered defects and increase the pitifully small budget in NHTSA for motor vehicle safety standards, recalls and research.

The current annual budget is about $150 million, which is less than three months worth of your tax dollars paying corporate contractors to guard the U.S. Embassy and its personnel in Baghdad, Iraq.

While the decline in highway casualties in 2009 can be attributed to a considerable degree to the recession, the record of highway safety regulation, bumps and all, certainly compares favorably with the anemic safety frameworks set up for other widespread technologies such as offshore drilling and spilling.

RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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