By issuing a few commands to their computers, the managers of multi-national corporations gather financial data from their factories and offices around the world and publish year-end earnings reports by Jan. 20. But, for reasons not clear to me, automobile accident figures usually run many months behinds the carnage on the highways. Even computers can't keep pace.
Safety experts are now analyzing the accident figures for 1976, and the picture is not pleasant. You can color it blood red.
Vehicle registrations always increase from one year to the next. Naturally, with more cars on the road each year, there were almost always more accidents than the year before. But that pattern changed more than a decade ago. In the five years prior to 99, the number of motor vehicle occupants killed in crashes increased by an average of 7.48 percent a year. But in the years between 1967 and 1973, the average annual increase in deaths was only 0.44 percent, and in some of those years it was actually a minus quantity.
Keep in mind that this drop in casualties was achieved during a period when vehicle registrations were rising an average of 4.4 percent a year - 10 times as fast as the death toll.
However, Jan. 2, 1974, brought an even more dramatic drop. A 55-mile-an-hour speed limit went into effect nationwide on that date. And although the number of cars on our highway increased another 3.9 percent during 1974, highway deaths actually plunged 17.4 percent in that first year of the 55-mile speed limit.
Sad to relate, our reformation was of short duration. By 1975, the reduction in deaths was down from 17.4 to 0.3 percent. And according to an analysis of 1976 in Traffic Safety, the death toll has now turned up again, increasing by 3 percent during the year.
Why? Several national surveys may shed some light. In February of last year, 73 percent of the people questioned by Gallup Poll interviewers said they favored the 55-mile limit. An Advertising Council poll reported almost an identical result, with 72 percent saying they favored the speed limit. However, a Transportation Department report a few months later indicated that most Americans do not observe the speed limit. In fact, in states like Wyoming and Connecticut 77 per cent of the drivers were found to be driving faster than 55.
In other words, there is a serious discrepancy between what we say and what we do.
What else is new? The increased accident toll for two-wheeled vehicles sticks out like the diamond stickpin on Daddy Warbucks' shirt.
I use the term "two-wheelers" because the National Safety Council lumps motorcycles, motor scooters and motorized bicycles into one category.
In 1976, the number if motorized two-wheelers on the streets increased 2.9 percent over the year before; but deaths to the operators and passengers of these vehicles shot up a disproportionate 7.1 percent. Says Traffic Safety: "The exact reason for this change is not known, but it has been suggested by some authorities that varying enforcement of helmet laws, changes in the laws, and lack of helmet legislation have had an unfavorable effect." If motorcyclists, like motorists, are driving faster now, that might also be a factor.
Interesting note: The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center says that when two-wheelers collide with four-wheelers "the automobile driver is more frequently guilty of a traffic violation," and other researchers agree.
The automobile driver is at fault, but it's the guy on the two-wheeler who is more likely to be killed.
And all too often a female friend dies with him. Look at the numbers:
Most motorcycle operators involved in fatal accidents are male (90 percent) and young (under 25). But 15 to 20 percent of the victims are female. Since the figures relate only to "occupants" of the two-wheelers, not to pedestrians or motorists killed by them, it appears that many of the females who are killed each year are passengers.
In two-thirds of the cases, fatal accidents occur with five miles of the victim's home. Saturday is the worst day, as it is for auto crashes, and late afternoon the worst time. At least 90 percent of the deaths takes place in good weather on straight stretches of dry road. "Excessive speed" and "failure to yield the right-of-way" are the most frequently encountered causes of fatal accidents.
If you get your kicks on a two-wheeler, I hope this data will help make you cautious enough to survive.