Three weeks ago, I was walking home on a dark, snowy night in Concord, Massachusetts. The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital, hooked up to some kind of machine. I could not lift my legs or even my head.
The doctors told me I had been unconscious for hours. They explained that I had been hit, full on, by a car whose driver apparently could not see me in the dark and the snow; that I had suffered a concussion; that I had four broken bones in my back; that I would probably be unable to walk for days; and that the recovery period could be long and tough.
Still, they said, I had gotten lucky.
They were right. I am fine. But a lot of people aren’t. In the very month in which the nation’s capital seems to be overrun by deregulatory fever, it was announced that in 2016, more than 40,000 Americans died in accidents involving motor vehicles. That’s a significant jump from 2015, when traffic deaths also increased from the year before.
The United States should not accept that level of human tragedy. The good news is that the Department of Transportation knows a lot about what might help — and, yes, regulation is a part of the picture. In the coming year, the department’s new leadership and the White House ought to mount an aggressive effort, working alongside the private sector and state and local officials, to reduce deaths on roads and highways.
Start with some numbers. In 1930, about 31,000 Americans died in traffic accidents. Because people drove a lot less, that figure is less illuminating than the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled: a whopping 15.12. By 1940, that figure was reduced dramatically, all the way down to 10.89. Over the next 20 years, the death rate was cut in half, reaching 5.06 in 1960.
One of the country’s regulatory success stories, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was created a decade later, and by 1980, the rate had fallen to just 3.35. Over the next two decades, it continued to fall every year, ending up at just 1.53 by 2000. Until 2014, there was continuing progress, producing the all-time low of 1.08.
That’s a tremendous achievement, but it was no reason to declare victory: 32,675 Americans lost their lives in that year (significantly more than the year’s number of deaths from opioid drugs). And in the last two years, the situation has gotten worse both in terms of the motor-vehicle-related death rate (which has grown to around 1.12) and the absolute number.
For those who want to save lives, an initial question is historical: Why did things improve so much from 1930 to 2014? We don’t have a complete picture, but federal regulation is a significant part of it.
The most comprehensive report, studying the period from 1960 to 2012, finds that safety standards saved an astonishing 613,501 lives in those years. Some of the standards involve occupant protections (including airbags), child restraints, roofs, brake systems, windshields and side doors. And while the aggregate savings are massive, the number is credible: Many individual safety regulations are expected to prevent hundreds of deaths annually, and over a 50-year period, with dozens of regulations, you can easily reach into the hundreds of thousands of lives saved.
But federal regulation is only one factor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seatbelt usage increased from 11 percent in 1981 to over 85 percent in 2010, and that has also saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Both the federal government (through educational campaigns) and the states (through both campaigns and mandates) have worked hard, and successfully, to increase use of seatbelts.
Since 1980, the number of deaths from drunk driving has also been cut substantially. Quite apart from government, new safety technologies, driven by market forces, have been exceedingly helpful.
So why has the toll gotten worse since 2014? Here, too, we lack a full picture, but there are at least three contributing factors.
First, many people do not use seatbelts, and in recent years, we haven’t seen nearly enough progress in increasing usage rates. Second, alcohol- and drug-impaired driving remains a serious problem. Third, distracted driving is a big and probably growing reason for accidents. During the Obama administration, a great deal was done to attack that problem, both through public information campaigns and through targeted regulations. But much more needs to be done.
Within the Department of Transportation, technical specialists are well-aware of that fact, and they have plenty of promising ideas; they are thinking creatively and quite ambitiously. Working with the National Safety Council, they recently announced a Road to Zero initiative, designed to eliminate traffic deaths within 30 years.
That goal might seem wildly unrealistic, but for any administration, there should not be a lot of higher priorities. With some feasible steps, we ought to be able to save tens of thousands of lives, perhaps even in the short run. The U.S. is on the cusp of a highway-safety revolution — but it needs a little help from Washington. In my next column, I will explain exactly why this is so.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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