Road safety laws slow to take hold

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From 2000 to 2010, more than 10 percent of all safety board recommendations related to driving were withdrawn, usually because agencies and states failed to act.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

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