Looking at speed limits, teen driving restrictions and seat belt laws, there’s a direct relationship between tougher, well-enforced laws and fewer deaths. That’s no accident, traffic safety advocates say.
“We’ve really focused on data-driven proposals to bring the crash death and injury rate down,” said Bill Bronrott, a transportation safety advocate, former Maryland delegate and the former deputy administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. “We’ve found when they’re embraced and enforced, these model laws are making a huge difference.”
And as you look at more and more data for increasingly dangerous driving behaviors, the regulations really do work.
Take speeding. Speed limits vary by states for good reasons. You can safely drive faster in rural Texas or Wyoming than in urban New York or Illinois. But where speed limits are higher, fatalities are also more common.
Here are speed limits by state:
And here are fatalities by state in collisions in which speed is the determining factor.
What about seat belt laws?
Only six states plus the District impose fines greater than $76 for seat belt violations. And uncoincidentally, those states also have the lowest seat belt-preventable fatality rates.
People aren't willing to pay a lot of money just to get away with not wearing a seat belt. So they buckle up. And when they crash, they survive, because seat belts are really important safety features.
"You can say absolutely without a doubt that if you were in a crash and wearing a seat belt, your chances of surviving that crash are increased dramatically," said Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "There’s no question you’re going to save lives in that state."
And of course, there are restricted teen driving laws, also called "graduated licensing."
Look at almost the entire Midwest and upper Midwest, from Montana down to Oklahoma. All of those states allow teens to get their licenses between the ages of 16 and 17. And in all of those states, more than 21 teens die per 100,000 crashes where youth or inexperience were a determining factor.
"When I first got involved in traffic and highway safety, it became very clear to me that these were not accidents," said Bronrott, who was considered the Maryland General Assembly's dean on road safety during his four terms in the House of Delegates. "It was not luck or fate. A lot of what goes on on our roadways is predictable."
It's so predictable that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that another 2,814 lives could have been saved in 2014 if all drivers and passengers wore seat belts.
The Advocates for Highway and Traffic Safety group has identified 15 kinds of laws for all states to pass to make the roads safer. They include learners' permit regulation, booster seat requirements and texting and driving bans, along with more stringent enforcement of speeding and seat-belt use.
The 50 states would need to pass 319 laws to satisfy those requirements. And that sounds like a lot of legislation -- until you realize the Maryland General Assembly alone took up 2,817 bills this past year and 102 of them were enacted.
So it could be hard to see those 319 rules become law relatively quickly, although the data overwhelmingly supports their efficacy.
"For any governor or state legislator or police chief or sheriff who is interested in moving their states toward zero deaths," Bronrott said, "we know the exact laws and programs and policies that need to be put into place to keep our families whole and our circle of friends intact."