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A noteworthy trend

Automobiles were barely invented when the death toll resulting from vehicle crashes was tallied for 1899.  26 individuals lost their life that year in a trend that would move markedly upward.

For each successive year, U.S. fatalities increased to the point where nearly 100 motorists per day were losing their lives in traffic related accidents in the 1936 total of 36,126.  In 1963, total vehicle deaths topped 40,000, a threshold that would remain in place for over 40 years as the tally stayed above 40,000 through 2007, a year when the total of lives lost was 41,259.

That’s the bad news.  Fortunately there is good news.  Even with an increase in registered vehicles and total miles travelled, the fatality figure for 2008 dropped to 37,423.  Since then, with little modulation, the numbers have “settled down” to the current rate of about 35,000.

By any reckoning, the yearly total is still excessive, but the downward trend is noteworthy.  As implied earlier, lowering the numbers is a challenge given the ever-increasing amount of vehicles on the roadways travelling a growing total of annual miles.

That condition makes the current downward trend even more impressive.  In 1936, there were 14 deaths per one million vehicle miles travelled.  By the late 1940s, fatalities had dropped to less than ten deaths per million VMT.  That statistic has generally moved lower every year since, coming in at five deaths per million VMT by the end of the 1950s, and getting down to three through the 1980s.  In 1991, the number dipped below two for the first time ever, and currently the death rate per million VMT is only slightly over one.

It would be nice if drivers themselves could take credit for the welcome trend, but it is not likely a statistically significant causal factor.  Improvements in roads and advancements in automobile design can be most credited with the large strides made in traffic safety.

It’s obvious that roads have come a long way over the decades.  But automobile innovation has advanced even more impressively lately, and vehicle occupants have benefitted.

A recent recount of a traffic crash by reader J.S. drove home the point.  He came across the aftermath of a head-on collision on the Palouse Highway, where he was, “astonished at the complete destruction of both cars.”  He noted, “The entire engine compartments were smashed and unrecognizable. In fact, both front axles were gone and wheels/tires were nowhere to be seen.”

That sort of devastation makes one fear the sight of death, as J.S. did arriving at the scene.  Much to his relief, when asking a bystander where the driver was, the bystander said, “I’m the driver.” His passenger was walking about at the scene too, as was the other driver.  A passenger remained in one of the cars with non-life-threatening injuries.  J.S. could not help but marvel at the apparent advanced engineering built into late model automobiles.

From a safety standpoint, manufacturer concentration on rigid occupant compartments surrounded with “crumple zones” has vastly improved accident survival rates for drivers and passengers. That, along with multiple airbags and other mechanical advancements, has been a nice adaptation of lessons learned from auto racing and automaker crash testing.

The most important safety feature is still a driver armed with experience and knowledge of road rules, focused on the task at hand.  When drivers make inevitable errors, however, built-in safety is welcome.    

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at precisiondriving@spokesman.com.

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