BOSTON — IN 1992, America had the safest roads in the nation's history.
Traffic fatalities dropped to 1.8 per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled, says Tim Hurd of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Thirty years ago there were five or six fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled."
More crash-worthy vehicles, automatic seat belts, air bags, and a reduction in drunk driving are credited with providing steady progress against fatalities and injuries. The 1992 level of 39,200 fatalities was down from 41,462 in '91 and 51,000 in '80. A Prevention Magazine survey finds that today's car owners and buyers are willing to pay extra for safety features: 69 percent would pay more for anti-lock brakes, 61 percent for a driver's side air bag, and 62 percent for a passenger's side air bag.
Increased seat-belt use, even in cars with manual seat belts, has contributed to the decline in auto fatalities. Presently 44 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws mandating seat-belt use. In the early '80s, 10 to 15 percent of front-seat occupants buckled up, says Adrian Lund, vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. That figure is close to 60 percent today.
As drivers replace old cars, new technology is raising safety levels. "Anti-lock, anti-skid braking systems are really making a difference," says Robert Calvin, manager of highway safety programs at the Highway Users Federation in Washington.
The '80s also saw a steady decline in motorcycle fatalities. New motorcycle registrations and ridership dropped.
The drunk driving problem, despite rapid gains through the early part of the decade, has proven less tractable in recent years. "In the early '80s there was a sharp reduction in alcohol involvement in crashes," Dr. Lund says. "But there hasn't been much of a decline ... since 1987."
Between 1980 and 1987, the percentage of fatally injured drivers who had blood alcohol content levels over 0.10 grams per deciliter fell from about 50 percent of those drivers to about 39 percent. Since then, it has hovered around 40 percent.
MAJOR factor stalling progress on reducing alcohol-impaired driving is a drop-off in coverage of the issue by the news media, says Terrance Schiavone, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving. "We've made great inroads into the `social drinker a person who you can get to with education," Mr. Schiavone says. "But we need to take a hard look at how to impact the `problem drinker.' "
Lund agrees. The US needs "to see some renewed movement," he says. "We need to figure out a way to regain momentum."
Safety advocates point to several approaches that have been successful in a number of states, including:
Interlock devices for problem drinkers. To start his car, a driver must blow into a system that detects alcohol. A court orders the device attached to a problem drinker's car and can set the level of alcohol allowed. Given the overcrowding in jails, and judges' hesitance to lock up drunk drivers, this system can help keep problem drinkers off the road. Twenty states use interlock devices, Schiavone says.
Designated driver campaigns. Today, 37 percent of the drinking population say they use a designated driver. Three years ago, the figure was 18 percent.
Sobriety checkpoints. This tactic has raised objections from civil libertarians. Yet states using them "make their enforcement efforts very visible and increase the deterrent effect," Lund says.
Administrative license laws. Most states have laws that require the loss of a license after drunk-driving convictions. But because license revocation hinges on court proceedings, some advocates favor license suspension. After the driver is arrested, the magistrate or arresting officer takes the license and gives the driver a temporary card to use for a few days while they appeal. "It's one of the laws that does make a difference," Lund says.