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Presentation of Fatality Statistics Smacks of Election-Year Politics

Aug. 10, 2004

Presentation of Fatality Statistics Smacks of Election-Year Politics

Statement of Joan Claybrook,* Public Citizen President

The federal government’s treatment of the latest highway fatality rate statistics today is a sad example of election-year spin over public health. While the release highlights the fact that the highway death rate is at an “historic low” – a .8 percent reduction from 2002 – in fact the death rate has been in a steady march downward for years, declining 46 percent between 1982 and 2002. 

This continuing long-term trend was not trumpeted as news before by this administration and represents a major shift in emphasis. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) latest spin also downplays the real news in the numbers— that 42,643 people lost their lives on the road last year. Also, much of the report focuses on year-to-year comparisons that can be misleading because small percentage changes must be analyzed as part of longer-term trends to be meaningful. 

The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) about-face is stunning. Just last year, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the NHTSA, gave an interview to Newsday in which he focused on the record number of highway fatalities and predicted that the total dead could reach 50,000 annually in 2008.  “This is a Vietnam War every year,” he said. “That’s just not tolerable.”  And at a 2004 Society of Automotive Engineers meeting, Dr. Runge also made it clear that declining death rates were no cause for celebration, considering the high number of people still killed on the highway.  A March 2004 slide presentation by NHTSA researchers entitled “Why Are We Not Seeing Reduction in Highway Fatalities” noted that fatalities are “essentially flat since 1995.”

Now, a few months before Election Day, the emphasis has shifted to death rates rather than real numbers. The DOT also is misleadingly characterizing the data on lives saved from safety belt use. While it is undisputed that higher safety belt use saves lives, the agency commits statistical malpractice when it claims that the decrease in unrestrained occupants killed in crashes is “closely” related to the increase in observed safety belt use. But the two figures are apples and oranges. The first is a percentage of all occupants killed in fatal crashes, where belt use rates are far lower than they are in general; the second is based on daytime surveys of the entire driving population.

It is important to note that SUV rollover fatalities jumped 6.8 percent from 2002 to 2003, again emphasizing the need for a rollover prevention standard and a tougher roof crush standard, both of which are required in legislation pending before Congress (Title IV of S. 1072, SAFETEA, which also contains an array of other critical safety measures). Much important work has yet to be done to make U.S. roads safer. The administration should not declare victory, whatever the politics.

*Joan Claybrook was NHTSA Administrator from 1977-1981.