To prevent crashes, a new push to improve driver behavior

Despite the human and financial toll of traffic fatalities annually in the United States – 43,000 deaths and 2.7 million injuries at a cost of about $230 billion – such accidents are often viewed as an inevitable, if tragic, byproduct of driving. Now a small but growing number of safety advocates and transportation researchers want to change that perception, partly by borrowing proven strategies from Europe and Australia. The goal, they say, is to reduce the number of traffic deaths – not by improving cars to limit the severity of crashes, but by targeting human behaviors that trigger collisions in the first place.

That strategy has worked well in the Netherlands, where over the past three decades, the annual number of traffic fatalities has declined by 75 percent from 3,200 to 800. Today, that country has one of the lowest per capita traffic fatality rates in the world.

"The perspective in our society is that quite some proportion of all car crashes are preventable," says Fred Wegman, director of the Netherlands Institute for Road Safety Research, "and there is no need to accept the death toll."

Mr. Wegman visited Washington, D.C., last month for the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board as an independent adviser to the US government. Improving traffic safety is not easy, he says. "You are famously dependent on how the population perceives the problem, and whether you can interest politicians to take action."

Some methods used by the Netherlands to reduce road fatalities include changing road design to limit vehicle speeds, expanding automated enforcement and sobriety testing, and prohibiting the use of electronic devices while driving.

"Since the 1960s, safety campaigns in this country have focused predominantly on crash mitigation, such as seat belts and air bags," says Bob Chauncey, director of a new "traffic justice" initiative for the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, a nonprofit group in Bethesda, Md. "With the exception of MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving], we don't look at the root cause of the crash."

The US approach to road safety is limited in scope, says David Willis, a senior research scientist at the Texas Transportation Institute in College Station. Forty percent of all fatal crashes in the United States are due to speeding, he says. "But unlike almost every other civilized society in the world, we don't focus on driver behavior – we focus on vehicle design."

In the Netherlands, says Mr. Wegman, speed limits are very low: 25 m.p.h. in the city, and 60 m.p.h. on the freeway. Dutch roads are also designed to encourage safe driving. Traffic-calming strategies include extensive bicycle and pedestrian facilities, narrow streets with medians, and roundabouts instead of intersections with traffic signals. Roundabouts are traffic circles that force drivers to slow down to 15 m.p.h.

A strict police enforcement program, including random sobriety checks and cameras that automatically identify speeders, means "you have a very good chance of getting caught," says Wegman. The legal blood-alcohol limit in the Netherlands is 0.05 percent compared with 0.08 percent in the US.

Studies conducted in London showed a 40 percent reduction in crashes that resulted in injuries after the installation of automatic speed cameras. In Victoria, Australia, the number of fatal crashes involving drunken drivers declined by 25 percent after random sobriety checkpoints were set up.

In the US, 31 states have raised highway speed limits to 70 m.p.h. Only four states – California, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey – and Washington, D.C., have passed laws against using hand-held cellphones while driving. Most states prohibit or restrict the use of automated speed enforcement, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.

"People say, 'Driving is a personal matter, government leave me alone,' " says Steve Lind, director of the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission. Washington State law prohibits sobriety checkpoints and bans electronic speed enforcement except in school zones. But the benefits of these strategies are now well documented, Mr. Lind says. "We can't be afraid to get these tools in front of policymakers. It's up to the people to accept them."

Legislation, enforcement, and public awareness are the key elements for a successful traffic safety program, Wegman says. The Netherlands' ban on hand-held cellphones while driving, for example, would not be effective without the accompanying media campaign on distracted driving. "The position of the press is very important," says Wegman.

The "traffic justice" initiative in the US, which is fueled by local groups, aims to shift the national discussion from "car accidents" to "car crashes," says Mr. Chauncey. Americans accept limitations on personal freedoms in exchange for airplane safety, he says. "Now we expect just conduct from all players in the road transportation system: the planners, the engineers, the drivers, and the car companies."

Although roundabouts are becoming more popular in the US, cities and states continue to build roads that allow drivers to speed, traffic-justice proponents say.

"Drivers and pedestrians are victims of engineers looking at traffic flow," says Andrea Okomski, executive director of Pedestrian InRoads, a nonprofit in Seattle. "We know about traffic calming.... We just don't do it."

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