Scientists don’t view traffic injuries as “senseless” or “accidental” but as events susceptible to understanding and prevention. Urban planners, elected officials and highway engineers approach such injuries by asking four questions: What is the problem? What are the causes? Have effective interventions been discovered? Can we install these interventions in our community?
The federal government has invested billions to understand the causes of motor vehicle fatalities and, with that knowledge, has markedly reduced traffic deaths in the United States. Since the mid-1970s, research has inspired such interventions as child restraints, seat belts, frontal air bags, a minimum drinking age and motorcycle helmets. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 366,000 lives were saved through such efforts from 1975 to 2009.
Through the same scientific, evidence-based approach, our country has made progress understanding and preventing violence. Once upon a time, law-abiding citizens believed that violence generated by evil always had existed and always would exist. By the mid-20th century, that sense of fatalism was yielding to discoveries by social scientists, physicians and epidemiologists. Now a body of knowledge exists that makes it clear that an event such as the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., was not a “senseless” occurrence as random as a hurricane or earthquake but, rather, has underlying causes that can be understood and used to prevent similar mass shootings.
We also recognize different types of violence, including child abuse and neglect, sexual assault, elder abuse, suicide and economically and politically motivated violence. Like motor vehicle injuries, violence exists in a cause-and-effect world; things happen for predictable reasons. By studying the causes of a tragic — but not senseless — event, we can help prevent another.
Recently, some have observed that no policies can reduce firearm fatalities, but that’s not quite true. Research-based observations are available. Childproof locks, safe-storage devices and waiting periods save lives.
But it’s vital to understand why we know more and spend so much more on preventing traffic fatalities than on preventing gun violence, even though firearm deaths (31,347 in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available) approximate the number of motor vehicle deaths (32,885 in 2010).