More pressure, fewer deaths
In one of the extraordinary achievements of modern times, the death rate and number of deaths in highway crashes continue to plummet. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 32,310 deaths resulting from vehicle crashes last year were the fewest in 60 years, and the death rate per miles driven was the lowest since 1921.
One of the reasons for fewer deaths last year was that Americans drove 1.2 percent fewer miles, a decline of 35.7 billion miles, than in 2010. But the death rate, 1.09 deaths per 100 million miles driven, also declined from 1.11.
There are many reasons for the decline, part of a trend that has reduced the number of traffic deaths by 26 percent since 2006. Cars and roads are safer than ever. More young drivers are waiting until they are 18 to drive. Aggressive drunk-driving enforcement is more common due to national standards. The weak economy and higher driving costs reduce the number of miles driven. More states each year have outlawed texting while driving and more have gotten serious about seat belt and child-seat enforcement.
The improving statistics should not produce complacency, however. Despite the improvement, 32,310 lives were lost, after all.
Much can be done. Congress could force a national standard outlawing texting while driving and hand-held cell phone use by drivers, just as it forced a national DUI standard of 0.08 percent blood alcohol level, by withholding highway funding for states that don't comply.
And, while vehicles are safer than ever, the engineering isn't finished. The highway safety administration, for example, plans to press a standard that would require a brake override when a driver presses the brake and accelerator at the same time - a common cause of accidents, especially among older drivers.
Congress also could fund a long-term transportation bill to improve the condition, therefore safety, of thousands of miles of deteriorating roadways.
The improvement results from a confluence of social change, insightful regulation and innovative engineering. Safety has become not just desirable but marketable. Status now is conferred not just by leather seats, but by how many airbags a vehicle has. More pressure for safer cars and roads will result in yet fewer deaths.