are safer than
in the past
The issue: The country's number of traffic
fatalities per miles traveled has dropped
to less than half the rate of 24 years ago.
AS they enter the perilous Labor Day weekend still reeling from last Sunday's predawn traffic fatality involving a high-speed racing car, motorists can take solace in the knowledge that highways are much safer than they used to be. Cars are sturdier, more seat belts are buckled and fewer people are being killed. Motorists themselves are largely responsible for their own safety and will continue to be.
Surveys show that 73 percent of people observed in the front seats of vehicles in the nation wear seat belts, compared with only 58 percent seven years ago, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The number of cars equipped with air bags has risen from 22 million to more than 80 million in the past five years.
Much of this improvement can be credited to consumer pressure. Two decades ago, consumers ranked safety ninth among 12 features they considered when buying a vehicle. Now they rank it sixth out of 26 features. However, that care must extend to the highway itself.
"The most crashworthy vehicle, the most well-designed car in the world is not going to help you in many situations unless you take the personal responsibility to help the vehicle help you," says Jeffrey Runge, chief of the traffic safety agency.
So far, that increased responsibility has resulted in a drop in the highway death rate. In 1977, the nation's traffic fatalities totaled 47,878, or 3.3 deaths per million miles. Last year's death total was 41,800 and, because vehicle miles traveled has increased significantly, the rate dropped to 1.6 deaths per million miles -- less than half that of nearly a quarter century ago.
Although improving safety overall, air bags caused their own risk in recent years because they ballooned with greater force than small children could absorb. Child deaths resulting from head injuries cause by air bags totaled 25 in 1996. The government had begun allowing switches to deactivate air bags the previous year and later recommended that the passenger-side air bag be turned of if a child under 13 is riding in the front seat. The number of confirmed child deaths caused by air bags dropped to six last year.
The traffic-fatality figures for Hawaii are not quite as encouraging. So far this year, 88 people have died on the state's roads, compared with 89 at the same time last year. Mothers Against Drunk Driving says a better sign is that alcohol-related traffic fatalities during those same periods declined from 35 to 23. The state's motorists should take every measure to assure that this three-day weekend matches the Labor Day statistic of last year -- zero fatalities.
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