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IIHS: 7 countermeasures to reduce motor vehicle crash deaths

Consumer Reports News: August 18, 2011 12:09 AM

Even though motor vehicle crashes are at record lows, there is still more to be done to prevent the over 32,000 deaths that occur annually on the nation’s roads. A new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) notes that a few proven countermeasures can have quick payoffs if lawmakers make some bold moves.

IIHS cites an estimated 32,788 motor vehicle deaths last year according to a preliminary projection from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which would be a decline of over 3 percent from 2009. Much of the reduction is attributed to safer vehicles being built and further advances in vehicle safety, such as crash-avoidance technologies that show promise for the future. However, the IIHS report cites measures that can be taken now to make an immediate impact. Here are the suggestions from the IIHS:

Enact primary safety belt laws.
In 2009, NHTSA estimates that seat belts saved over 12,000 lives. NHTSA’s “Click It or Ticket” program has helped spread the word through high visibility enforcement, but there are still a number of states without primary seat belt laws (which allow police to ticket motorists for just that infraction). We recently noted a survey that highlighted the states with the highest seat belt use, and the worst was in New Hampshire where there is no seat belt law. IIHS research shows that switching from a secondary law to primary reduces driver deaths by 7 percent. If those states with secondary laws changed to primary, an estimated 284 lives could have been saved in 2009. Increasing fines is another way to boost compliance as the national average is just $25.

Mandate motorcycle helmets. Currently 20 states plus the District of Columbia have universal helmet laws and 27 states have partial laws, which typically only cover younger riders. Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire have no helmet law. In states with laws, nearly all motorcyclists use them, but that drops to half in states that have partial or no laws. NHTSA estimates that nearly 1,500 lives were saved from helmet use in 2009 and an additional 732 lives could have been saved if helmets were worn.

Strengthen teen driver laws. Car crashes are the number-one killer of teens, but graduated licensing laws have helped reduce the risk by enacting phases for full licensure. States with these programs have reduced teen crashes by up to 30 percent. Delaying the age of licensure from 16 to 17 years lowers the death rate of teens ages 15 to 17 years by 13 percent. Studies show there is much support from parents as well as teens on these measures. A bill currently in Congress aims to create a national graduated licensing model (see more on the STAND UP Act).

Lower speed limits. Speeding contributed to 31 percent of all deaths in 2009. In 1995, Congress repealed the national maximum speed limit of 55 mph and now states determine their own limits. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimates that over 12,500 deaths were attributed to increases in speed limits between 1995 and 2005. A lower speed limit also helps reduce fuel economy and emissions.

Red light cameras. The IIHS has long been in favor of red-light cameras designed to catch speeders and drivers who run red lights. In 2009, 676 people were killed from red-light running, but there were an estimated 130,000 injuries. A recent IIHS survey notes there is support for these cameras and fatalities have dropped in the major cities that use them. Opponents say they are an invasion of privacy and a means for government to make more money.

Conduct DUI checkpoints. Thirty-eight states, plus Washington, D.C., have sobriety checkpoints and these have helped to deter drivers from drinking behind the wheel and to catch those who do. IIHS estimates that 7,440 deaths could have been prevented in 2009 if drivers were below the legal limit at .08 percent. NHTSA has a successful “Over the Limit, Under Arrest” campaign that runs at various times throughout the year to target drunk drivers (usually around holiday times), but further checkpoints could catch violators more frequently.

Build roundabouts. The most common crashes at intersections involve left-turns, head-on crashes, and right angles. Roundabouts keep the cars moving in the same direction. In areas where roundabout were added, crashes dropped 40 percent. The Federal Highway Administration recommends considering roundabouts for all new intersections or those needing repair.

This list from IIHS builds upon Consumer Report’s previous recommendations for saving lives on the road.

See our related reports:
Simple things you can do to drive more safely
Eight things that can dramatically improve auto safety

Motor vehicle crashes are preventable and small changes can make a big impact in helping to save lives.

For more on car safety, see our special section.

Liza Barth

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