The release of this World Health Organization analysis of motor vehicle related fatalities draws important attention to the problem of motor vehicle crashes and the need for a global attitude that these deaths are preventable. However, the study misses the key consideration of vehicle-based approaches — like airbags and increased roof strength — to addressing motor vehicle deaths.
The Times piece cites Dr. Kelly Henning of Bloomberg Philanthropies, who emphasizes laws that require seat belts and helmets and drunk driving laws. But this is only half of the highway safety picture: improved vehicle safety systems are necessary to protect occupants in crashes that inevitably happen.
Improvements in vehicle safety played a significant role in reducing highway fatalities in the United States, and improvements in vehicle design have strongly contributed to the reduction in the fatal crash rate, from 5.5 fatal crashes per 100 million miles driven in 1965 to 1.37 fatal crashes per 100 million miles in 2007. The WHO report does not even discuss vehicle-based approaches to reducing motor vehicle crashes.
For a case study in why vehicle design matters, one need only look to rollover crashes in the United States, which were responsible for 1,400 fatalities in 1969, however, now account for more than 10,500, or about a quarter of all motor vehicle deaths. Contrary to the claims of the auto industry, rollover crashes should actually be very survivable (as Public Citizen has argued again and again), if vehicles were designed to protect occupants when they roll over.