Europe devotes a year to traffic safety

This is the year Europe has chosen to focus on highway safety. The transportation ministers of the 12 member countries of the European Community launched a massive publicity campaign earlier this month.

The EC's goal, according to Stanley Clinton Davis, the senior EC official concerned with the issue, is to focus public attention on ways to rid the roads of what experts call some of the worst hazards: alcohol, speeding, and the widespread reluctance to ``buckle up.''

Road safety exhibitions will be held from Spain to Denmark. Seminars will be organized. Advertising campaigns will be created. It will be difficult, in fact, to travel anywhere in Europe this year without running into European Road Safety Year.

Yet this public-awareness initiative is being launched just as some of the more widely held assumptions about driving safety are being challenged with increasing vigor.

For example, a documented study of road safety regulations written by John Adams, a lecturer at University College (London), points out that road fatalities have dropped off dramatically as traffic has increased; the number of highway fatalities has fallen since the repeal of speed-limit laws imposed in some countries during the energy crisis; and evidence is lacking to prove that laws obliging people to wear seat belts save lives.

Though road accidents and fatalities in Western Europe have fallen since 1975, the number of cars registered has risen. Few analysts can explain why. Nor do they understand why it is statistically safer (measured by the number of deaths per capita) to drive in West Germany, where there are no speed limits, than in Austria, France, Belgium, or Luxembourg, where speed limits are strictly enforced. Similarly, the fatality rate on highways in America, where speed limits are much lower and the roads are as good, is considerably higher than in Europe.

Many experts believe that the best way to make the roads safer is not by approving new laws restricting human behavior -- or by launching publicity campaigns -- but by making the vehicles safer.

To that end, the United Nations established a Geneva-based group 33 years ago which sets technical standards for everything from tires to mirrors. So far, the group has put through more than 60 regulations; another eight are on the way. But even here there is dissension among those closely concerned with the problem. Many consumer organizations argue, for instance, that the standards set often represent the bare minimum.

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