Road safety laws slow to take hold

By Robin Schwartz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 9:14 PM

When an airplane crashes, federal safety officials quickly move in to investigate. But when people die on U.S. highways - as nearly 100 a day do, on average - the burden generally falls to state and local officials to figure out why.

Their conclusions lack the long reach of the National Transportation Safety Board, which devotes the bulk of its resources to air disasters, even though more people die on the roads than in any other kind of transportation accident.

When the board does investigate a road crash and offers safety recommendations, years can pass before anything is done, according to an analysis by News21, a national university student reporting project, and the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

More Americans die in car, truck and bus accidents than any other mode of travel - 33,808 in 2009 alone. Road accidents are one of the top 10 causes of U.S. deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

From 2000 to 2010, more than 10 percent of all safety board recommendations related to driving were withdrawn, usually because agencies and states failed to act.

Four state highway recommendations are at the top of the NTSB's list, including one it has sought for more than a decade: requiring booster seats for children under 8. Other unfulfilled recommendations call for more rigorous seat-belt and drunken-driving enforcement and restrictions on young drivers.

Implementing just those related to "belts and booze" could all but eliminate highway deaths, said Danielle Roeber, an investigator for the NTSB. In 2008, 31 percent of fatal crashes involved a driver under the influence of alcohol and 50 percent of occupants killed in crashes were unbelted, according to NHTSA data.

States' responsibility

But highway safety laws are largely left up to the states, which have been resistant to many recommendations and inconsistent in applying them. No state has complied with all NTSB recommendations, and some have complied with practically none.

In New Hampshire, for example, there is no seat belt requirement for adults. Eighteen states have secondary seat belt laws, under which officers can't stop someone solely for not using one. In other states, officers can ticket only people in the front seats of a vehicle for not wearing a seat belt.

All states have some form of child restraint law, but 24 do not require all children under 8 to be restrained in booster seats.

And although no state allows drinking and driving, many have fallen far short of NTSB recommendations. For example, officers are not allowed to set up sobriety checkpoints in Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Other states have balked at an NTSB recommendation for harsher penalties on drivers with blood-alcohol levels of more than 0.15.

"In another circumstance, with the same number of deaths, people would be in an uproar," said Steve Blackistone, state liaison for the NTSB.

In 2009, deaths from highway collisions dropped to the lowest level in 60 years. But highway accidents are still the leading cause of death for Americans under 34, the NTSB says.

The safety board has issued recommendations to reduce young drivers' deaths. They include graduated licensing and driver's education for teens as well as restrictions on driving with peers and cellphone use.

Some coastal states, including Maine, Delaware, Connecticut, Oregon and California, have implemented many of these safety measures targeting teens. Residents in the Midwest and Southwest have resisted such measures. They would make it harder for them "to use their kids in the fields and to get back and forth from sport events," said Ed Gruchalla, a state representative from Fargo, N.D., who sponsored a bill for graduated licensing that was narrowly defeated last year.

"We're the only state where you can get a driver's license at 14, load up with all your buddies and be on your cellphone at the same time," Gruchalla said. "It's a recipe for disaster."

Distracted driving

In 2009, nearly 5,500 people died and nearly 500,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers, according to NHTSA data.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called distracted driving "a personal crusade" and has sponsored two distracted-driving summits since taking office. LaHood, who has used Twitter and Facebook to advocate against distracted driving, recently tweeted: "Computer chip can't stop 2,000 pound car whose texting driver fails to see cars stopped 50 ft ahead."

President Obama embraced the cause last year when he issued an executive order banning federal employees from texting while driving on government business.

The NTSB has issued two recommendations on cellphone use and driving but has stopped short of advocating a ban.

In 2003, the board urged states to bar teen drivers from using cellphones. The safety board acted after an accident involving an inexperienced and unbelted 20-year-old who was on her cellphone and speeding in Maryland. The car jumped a guardrail and crossed a median into oncoming traffic near Largo, and her Ford Explorer flipped over and landed on top of a minivan. The driver of the SUV and four people in the minivan were killed.

Three years later, the board promoted a similar ban for bus drivers.

Some states have gone much further. The District of Columbia and eight states prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving. And 28 states and the District have banned cellphone use by novice drivers, according to the NTSB and the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a group that lobbies for vehicle safety, scoffed at that notion. "You almost have to avoid investigating a crash not to investigate a crash involving cellphones," he said.

The Governors Highway Safety Association has begun its own campaign, telling drivers: "Don't use cellphones or other electronic devices while driving, regardless of the current law."

News21 reporter Aarti Shahani contributed to this report.

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