April 28, 2004
Increase in Traffic Deaths Is Predictable Yet Preventable; Congress Must Require Life-Saving Vehicle Safety Improvements
Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook*
The bad news from the government today – that traffic deaths on U.S. highways are up for the second year in a row – is tragically predictable. Automakers have the technology to make vehicles safer, particularly in rollover crashes, which dominate this increase. Yet the government has not required automakers to act, and people continue to die needlessly.
SUV rollover crash deaths and injuries in 2003 are up a shocking 10 percent over 2002, with 61 percent of SUV fatalities and injuries, as in 2002, rollover-related. This is particularly awful because many rollovers deaths could be prevented if vehicles were designed to be more stable and required to have stronger roofs that do not collapse and crush people in the vehicle.
The number of people killed on our roads in 2003 (43,220) is the highest since 1990, up by 405 from 2002. If the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives were wiped out in one year, a firestorm would result. Today the nation is understandably riveted on the terrible losses in Iraq – 416 U.S. soldiers killed in hostile fire in the past year. But tens of thousands of traffic deaths are dismissed as a cost of driving.
Congress could reverse this deadly highway trend by enacting vehicle safety measures in Title IV of S. 1072, SAFETEA. The act requires vehicle roofs to be stronger and vehicles to be less rollover-prone. It would bolster side impact crash protection with side head air bags, address vehicle mismatch (where large vehicles collide with smaller ones), improve child safety, make 15-passenger vans safer, require better seat belts and require safety information to be provided to new car buyers. In short, it would do more to make highways safer than has been done in decades. The Senate has approved these provisions and the House bill does not address them; these differences must be reconciled in conference.
The government may note that despite the increase in deaths, the fatality rate is unchanged because more people are on the highways. But every death has a ripple effect on families and communities. Affordable, feasible safety improvements could help prevent the rising death toll in SUVs; each unnecessary death is reprehensible.
If lawmakers truly want to make roads safer, as they profess, they should support the pending measure. If they do not, we can expect the same bad news when the government releases fatality data next year.
*Joan Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977-1981.