Traffic safety in Europe

I read with interest the article concerning the European focus on traffic safety [``Europe devotes a year to traffic safety,'' Jan. 24]. The article cites a documented study of road safety, written by a lecturer at University College in London, which claims that ``evidence is lacking to prove that laws obliging people to wear seat belts save lives.'' There is no basis for such a conclusion.

Data from countries with mandatory use laws is considerable, and a workshop last November sponsored by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found a consensus among European nations on the effectiveness of belt laws. A paper presented at the OECD workshop on safety belt use laws clearly showed that increases in safety belt use result in consistent reductions in deaths and injuries. Further, well-documented studies of the British experience provide conclusive evidence that the enactment of the law in Britain resulted in a significant decline in highway deaths and injuries.

The article also states that the fatality rate on highways in America is considerably higher than in Europe. Statistics clearly show that United States highways are the safest in the world. It should be noted that death totals of different nations must be compared cautiously, because of differences in the volume and kinds of traffic, numbers of vehicles, population density, and other factors.

Even measuring only motor vehicle deaths per capita, the US is about in the middle range of Western European nations. This, however, is not a meaningful yardstick, since we have more cars per capita than Western European nations and they are driven more. The better and generally accepted measure counts fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. This shows the US at an all-time low rate of 2.5, considerably lower than for any Western European country.

The writer says, ``Many experts believe that the best way to make the roads safer is not by . . . restricting behavior . . . but by making vehicles safer.''

Extensive studies on this subject show that most fatalities are due to driver error or improper vehicle maintenance. The US approach is a balanced one -- focusing on the driver, the vehicle, and the highway. Diane K. Steed National Highway Traffic Administrator Safety Administration


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