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The Traffic Safety Crisis Nobody Recognizes

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With all the bad news about rising crime, soaring drug abuse, rampant homelessness, and dire economic threats, few Americans have paid appropriate attention to a recent, and horrifying, increase in traffic deaths. The Department of Transportation reports 42,915 people died on our streets and highways in 2021 – the sharpest increase in automotive deaths since the 1940s. An average of more than 125 people died every day in car crashes.

To put the situation in perspective, American deaths from traffic accidents more than doubled the number of gun homicides last year, with vehicle fatalities continuing their tragic surge in the first part of 2022. Pete Buttigieg, US Secretary of Transportation recently declared “a national crisis of fatalities and serious injuries on our roadways” and in July the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a major campaign under the heading Speeding Wrecks Lives.

In one sense, this represented a response to the anomalous fact that the explosion of fatal accidents occurred at the same time as an overall reduction in driving, related to the pandemic and the recent, dramatic inflation in the cost of fuel. According to one prominent theory, the resulting “empty roads” encouraged more speeding and other forms of driver recklessness. Transportation officials say the U.S. has also been less aggressive in cracking down on speeders than authorities in Britain and European nations that have largely avoided the rise in fatalities.

The grim recent statistics on traffic safety to some extent mirror the rise in violent crime. As with murders, rapes and assaults, the rate of car crash deaths saw steady declines that lasted for decades before the recent turns for the worse. Beginning in the late 1970s, highway safety numbers improved substantially, due in large part to enhancements in vehicle design. Inspired by Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” crusade, seatbelt use also increased, speed limits went down in much of the country and drunk driving drew more serious consequences.

The progress lasted until the second decade of the new century when the advent of mobile phones began to produce a national epidemic of distracted driving. As the New York Times pointed out, by 2015 two-thirds of American adults owned smartphones, up from virtually none ten years before.

But the sharpest increases in traffic deaths came only in 2020, as the COVID pandemic began to take hold across the country and around the world. “We’re seeing erratic behavior in the way people are acting and their patience levels,” said Albuquerque police chief Harold Medina. “Everybody’s been pushed. This is one of the most stressful times in memory.” Reporter Simon Romero noted that “people are frustrated and angry, and those feelings are fueling increases in violent crime, customer abuse of workers, student misbehavior in school and vehicle crashes.” According to this analysis, increases in aggressive driving more than made up for the decreases in driving in general.

If the rise in traffic deaths does, in fact, stem from the sour, aggrieved, impatient nature of our prevailing national mood, then the government stands scant chance of success with a big new PR campaign to highlight the dangers of speeding. Perhaps other suggestions, like equipping more cars with automated braking, better-designed street systems or enhanced incentives to use public transit, might help reduce future fatalities, or at least slow the rate of increase.

Transportation experts also call for new efforts to reduce the unequal racial impact of automotive disasters. The most recent figures from the National Safety Council show a significant, longstanding difference in rates of US Passenger Vehicle Deaths according to race, with Black people suffering 8.21 fatalities per 100,000 people in 2019, while white people registered only 6.33 deadly accidents per 100,000. Two factors figure frequently in attempts to explain the disparities: Blacks are more likely to drive older cars with fewer safety features, and to live in neighborhoods with less up-to-date streets and highways.

The data, however, raise much deeper questions about an outlier group that suffers far less than either whites or Blacks when it comes to traffic disasters. The same National Safety Council numbers cited above show that Asian Americans experience 1.42 passenger vehicle deaths per 100,000 population – less than one-fourth of the fatality rate of whites, and less than one-seventh that of blacks.

This correlates with recent numbers on life expectancy in general, where Asians register a much more substantial advantage over whites (7.6 extra years of life) than the disadvantage experienced by Blacks (4.3 fewer years of life expectancy) compared to whites.

Explaining such numbers definitively remains as daunting as accounting for the numbers on traffic fatalities, but the perspective that they provide suggests an alternate focus for improving outcomes for every segment of society. Rather than concentrating on groups that underperform with such statistics, social planners might bring better results by highlighting those populations with the best numbers and learning from factors that helped produce them.

The dramatic under-representation of Asian Americans in traffic accidents may reflect the cultural qualities of self-control, patience and respect for rules that also produce longer life expectancy and better educational outcomes. Emphasizing those values may, in fact, help generate an improvement in overall traffic safety and help to revive the nation at large from the angry, resentful and self-destructive emotional outlook that exacerbates so many of our present painful problems.

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