Politics of Traffic Safety


Blame it at least partly on the recent un-winter, but traffic deaths are spiking after decades of decline. In the first six months of this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports, U.S. road fatalities totaled 16,290, up 1,340 over 2011’s first half. At this writing, the death toll in Minnesota is 305, 26 more than last year, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety’s real-time counter.

This is a worrisome trend, reversing 60 years of safety gains brought on by safer cars, safer roads, restrictions on high-risk teenage driving and crackdowns on seatbelt scofflaws and drunken drivers. Some of it could be due to a bit more vehicle miles traveled as the Bush recession ebbs. Some may be caused by carmakers’ relentless efforts to add video infotainment features that can distract drivers’ attention from the road ahead, as noted by Ben Kelley and Lou Lombardo in a recent online commentary.

Whatever the case, this is not a political issue in America, at least not yet. As NHTSA pointed out, “the historic downward trend in traffic fatalities … means any comparison will be to an unprecedented low baseline figure.”

But we still have the numerical equivalent of a 9/11 tragedy nearly every month on the road, which means traffic crashes ravage many more U.S. families than terrorism ever has. The broad reach of this chronic danger was illustrated by Kelley and Lombardo’s summary of how it has touched America’s leading political families:

“President Clinton’s biological father died after being ejected in a car crash in the 1940s. As a teenage driver in the 1960s, Laura Bush struck and killed a family neighbor. President Obama’s father died in a car wreck in 1982. In 1972, Vice President (then U.S. Sen.) Joe Biden’s wife and infant child were killed in a car-truck collision. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, as a young Mormon missionary, was severely injured in a collision in France that killed another passenger.”

The authors also point to federal regulators who they say have been too compliant with the auto industry on safety measures. I think their case for that allegation is weak, being partly based on lower per capita traffic deaths in other advanced nations. Most of those countries also have more good alternatives to driving and fewer vehicle miles traveled per capita.

In Minnesota, traffic safety has been vigorously pursued by state agencies through tripartisan governorships, with some excellent results. For example, seat belt use, which roadside surveys estimated at 79 percent as recently as 2003, hit a record 94 percent this year, including 97 percent for children aged 0 to 10 and 96 percent for females. Unbelted deaths fell more than half from 2003 to 2011.

This week, the state “Toward Zero Deaths” campaign’s focus is on a safe and sober Halloween. There will be extra DWI patrols on the roads and ads on the radio featuring besotted monsters Frankenstein and Wolfman.