A parent's nightmare came true when two children were killed recently in a school bus accident in Arlington ["2nd Child Dies After Bus Crash In N. Va.," Metro, April 21]. An even bigger tragedy, though, is that such needless deaths and injuries, caused by preventable crashes, are allowed to continue.
Former surgeon general C. Everett Koop once said that "if a disease were killing our children in the proportion that accidents are, people would be outraged and demand that this killer be stopped."
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 2 and 33.
As a physician who has worked in emergency rooms, and as a father of four, I believe that we must take the daily carnage on our roads more seriously. According to NHTSA, auto accidents caused 41,821 deaths and 5.3 million injuries in 2000, along with an economic cost of $230.6 billion. We all share in those losses.
Yet the Virginia General Assembly this year voted to remove red-light cameras, which help prevent deadly side-impact crashes. Radar cameras had been installed on the George Washington Parkway to address a series of fatal crashes, but they have never been activated because of political pressure. Then-House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) was outraged when he learned of plans to implement this traffic safety measure. "I'm committed to doing what it takes to make our roads safer, but not at the cost of our fundamental rights," he said [Metro, May 9, 2001].
Last year the Maryland General Assembly defeated Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to raise traffic fines, but it did approve the use of photographic radar for residential and school zones. Unfortunately, Ehrlich vetoed the radar plan last year and again this year.
Such traffic-enforcement devices are often portrayed as moneymaking schemes for governments rather than being promoted as ways to save lives, significantly reduce costs and improve traffic flow. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 25 percent of traffic delays stem from crashes and disabled vehicles. With today's volume of traffic, and without the use of newer technology, it's almost impossible to enforce traffic laws effectively without worsening traffic flow.
While tire-pressure-monitoring devices soon will be mandatory on new vehicles, breath-alcohol-monitoring devices still are not mandated, even though 17,013 vehicular deaths in 2003 were alcohol related.
Current laws offer little deterrent to drunken driving. Recently, a driver under the influence of alcohol who struck and killed a police officer received a minimal fine and a one-year license suspension because Maryland does not have a statute on negligent homicide [Crime and Justice, Metro, April 15].
Yearly attempts to pass this and other meaningful bills have failed. Many state legislators who vote on traffic safety legislation are attorneys who profit financially from handling lucrative traffic-related cases [editorial, March 31, 2004]. The public should demand that politicians declare war on this public health epidemic. We need to establish a commission of experts, not politicians, to develop laws that protect innocent and law-abiding motorists. It is a disgrace to allow violent and horrific deaths from preventable crashes to continue.
The bad news is that if no decisive action is undertaken we will have another 40,000 deaths -- or one every 12 minutes -- and millions of injuries on our roads this year.
-- Paul M. Goldberg