Study: U.S. could avert thousands of traffic deaths with tougher enforcement

Speed cameras monitor traffic on the 2200 block of Wootton Parkway in front of Wootton High School in Rockville, where the speed limit is 25mph.
Speed cameras monitor traffic on the 2200 block of Wootton Parkway in front of Wootton High School in Rockville, where the speed limit is 25mph. (Jahi Chikwendiu - Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 4:40 PM

Thousands of people could be saved from death on America's roads each year if drivers embrace strict drunken-driving enforcement and widespread use of speed cameras, which have helped cut fatalities by half in fifteen high-income countries, according to a major new study.

The United States is far behind other developed countries when it comes to pursuing strategies that reduce traffic fatalities. Since 1995, France has cut deaths by 52 percent, Great Britain by 38 percent and Australia by 25 percent. In the United States, they've dropped by 19 percent.

"The lack of progress in reducing the highway casualty toll might suggest that Americans have resigned themselves to this burden of deaths and injuries as the inevitable consequence of the mobility provided by the road system," the report says. "In other countries, public officials . . . have declared that this human and economic cost is neither inevitable or acceptable."

The number of traffic fatalities in the United States last year - 33,808 - was the lowest since 1949, but other countries saw far more significant drops. If the United States had made the same progress in reducing deaths as Britain did between 1997 and 2008, 29,000 more Americans would still be alive.

The comparisons were made by transportation experts at the National Research Council, a 94-year-old organization founded by the National Academy of Sciences.

Their 175-page report says a system that imparts much responsibility for roadway safety to state and local governments puts the U.S. at a disadvantage compared to countries where central government sets traffic laws and standards.

The report, written by the council's Transportation Research Board and released Tuesday, recommends that Congress give the U.S. Transportation Department greater authority to help states raise safety standards.

But that careful wording, and observations elsewhere in the report, underscores the political sensitivity of proposing deeper federal involvement in what traditionally has been the domain of state legislators.

The twin issues of political will and public acceptance will determine whether the life-saving steps successful in other developed nations can be taken in the United States.

In examining successes elsewhere, the researchers found there had been much tougher enforcement against drunken driving and speeding, and they also pointed to use of motorcycle helmets. All three historically have been hot-button issues in state legislatures.

A movement to reduce the legal limit for blood alcohol to .08 percent faced stiff resistance in many state capitals until the federal government threatened to withhold highway funds from those that refused to comply. The speed limit, once set at 55 mph, now is up to 75 mph in 11 states. Laws regarding use of motorcycle helmets have been weakened in many states since 1976, and now only about half require their use for all riders.

By contrast, the legal blood-alcohol limit has been reduced to .05 percent or lower in Australia, Japan and most European countries, with the exception of Ireland and Great Britain. Many of those countries enforce those limits through much more widespread use of sobriety testing.

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