Highway Safety Takes A U-Turn



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After a spike in traffic deaths, lawmakers are looking to improve roadway  safety.

By Douglas Shinkle, Anne Teigen and Amanda Essex

Every day, nearly 100 people die on American roadways. They may be in pickups or Priuses, on Harleys or Treks or even on foot. They’re traveling to work, to school or to have some fun when a seemingly mundane activity turns into a tragedy.

Yes, America’s roads and highways are significantly safer than they were 50 or even 25 years ago. Fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled have declined steadily over the last 40 years. But all that has changed in the last couple of years.

Traffic deaths increased 7.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, the largest percentage increase in almost 50 years. More than 35,000 died, and fatalities were particularly high for motorcyclists, bicyclists, pedestrians, and occupants of SUVs and vans.

What’s more, preliminary estimates show an 8 percent increase in traffic-related fatalities in the first nine months of 2016 when compared with 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. July through September 2016 was the eighth consecutive quarter with an increase in fatalities compared with the same period of time in previous years.

This shift is a serious reversal of the progress made toward making our roads safer and reducing fatalities.

Americans are driving more, due to cheap gas and an improving economy, and that alone can lead to more traffic deaths. But why the increase in crashes? Many of the same old problems continue to challenge state policymakers. Excessive speed. Not buckling up. Driving drunk. Being distracted. One thing is clear: Driving impaired, being distracted, speeding and not buckling up result from choices people make, all of which can lead to riskier roads for everyone.

Former NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind frequently noted that 94 percent of traffic crashes result from human error.

That’s why the potential autonomous vehicles have to increase safety is the hottest topic in the transportation world at the moment. The hope is that self-driving vehicles may one day reduce, or perhaps nearly eliminate, traffic deaths. But until then, traffic safety laws and programs that states enact and enforce will continue to affect communities and lives nationwide.

State legislatures are not standing idly by. Some are doubling down on such proven strategies as increased monitoring of convicted drunken drivers and stronger penalties for distracted driving.

Here’s what states are doing to lower behavior-related traffic deaths by focusing on impaired driving, speeding, distracted driving and seat belt use.

Impaired Driving

The Statistics. In 2015, 10,265 people were killed in alcohol- impaired traffic crashes, accounting for 29 percent of all motor-vehicle fatalities, NHTSA reports. The percentage of drivers who were alcohol-impaired and involved in fatal crashes in 2015 ranged from 9 percent in Utah to 29 percent in Rhode Island.

What States Are Doing. In 2016, lawmakers in 42 states introduced 380 bills to reduce impaired driving; in 32 of those states, they enacted new laws. One popular and effective strategy is requiring ignition interlocks for convicted drunken drivers. An interlock connects to a vehicle’s starter system and prevents it from starting if the blood alcohol concentration in the driver’s breath exceeds a preset level, typically well below the legal limit of .08 percent.

Along with public-awareness campaigns, the devices effectively prevent drunken driving by offenders. Interlocks can reduce the rate of re-arrests for DUI by 70 percent, according to a 2014 Government Accountability Office report.

New Mexico was the first state to require interlocks for all offenders, even first-timers, and 25 states now require them for all convicted drunken driving offenders.

In Maryland, after Montgomery County police officer Noah Leotta was killed by a driver sus- pected of driving drunk, Delegate Ben Kramer (D) sponsored “Noah’s Law,” which requires all offenders to install ignition interlock devices. 

“This is the only piece of legislation that we can say for a fact will save lives,” Kramer said when the law passed last year.

California, Georgia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont expanded the pool of drivers who are encouraged or required to install interlocks in 2016.



The Statistics. In 2015, there were 9,557 speeding-related traffic fatalities, an increase of 3 percent from 2014. Speeding was a factor in 27 percent of motor vehicle fatalities in 2015 and has been implicated in more than 25 percent of crash deaths since 2005, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

What States Are Doing. One way to reduce the dangers of speeding is to lower speed limits in residential and commercial areas with heavy pedestrian traffic. Research shows the likelihood of a pedestrian surviving a crash decreases drastically as vehicle speed increases.

In recent years, lawmakers in Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Washington have passed laws allowing cities and towns to reduce their speed limits in order to create safer environments for school children, seniors, people with disabilities and bicyclists.

The Massachusetts legislature, for example, voted to let municipalities lower speed limits on roads that are not state highways. Since the bill was signed in 2016, Boston, Cambridge and Somerville have reduced limits on some eligible streets to 25 mph.

In the Pacific Northwest, both Portland and Seattle have lowered speed limits to 20 mph on neighborhood greenways, which are residential streets designated for bike riders and pedestrians that have features meant to calm traffic.

Oregon Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick (D), a bicyclist herself, said she sponsored the legislation because she hoped the lower speed limits would “encourage Oregonians to ride their bikes on residential streets and reduce bike traffic on arterial streets.”

Seat Belt Use

The Statistics. Motor-vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death among people under age 54 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost half of those who died in passenger vehicles in 2015 were not wearing a seat belt. Research indicates that front-seat passengers who buckle up correctly reduce their risk of dying in a car crash by 45 percent and their risk of being moderately to critically injured by 50 percent.

NHTSA estimates that seat belts saved 13,941 lives in 2015; another 2,804 lives could have been saved if all unrestrained passengers involved in fatal crashes had worn their seat belts. Nearly 82 percent of people surveyed by AAA in 2015 said they never drive without a seatbelt, but data show that seat belt use varies widely by state—from 69.5 percent in New Hampshire (the only state without an adult safety-belt law) to 97.3 percent in California and Georgia in 2015.

What States Are Doing. Primary seat belt laws allow law enforcement officers to stop motorists for not being belted, with no other violation taking place. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have such laws. Furthermore, 18 states, D.C., Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands have primary laws requiring front and rear occupants to be belted. According to 2016 NHTSA data, states with primary laws averaged 9 percent higher seat belt use than states with secondary laws, which require police to stop the vehicle for other reasons before they can cite a driver or passenger for failure to use a seat belt.

Utah became the 34th state with a primary law in 2015. The law created a three-year pilot program, effective through July 1, 2018, allowing police to issue a citation for not wearing a seat belt if the driver has previously received a warning. Utah Representative Lee Perry (R), a highway patrol lieutenant, believes the law will increase seat belt use.

“We’re going to save lives,” Perry told a local news station at the time of the law’s passage. “I think the public is going to start to appreciate the fact that wearing a seat belt is just as important as not driving drunk, just as important as not driving reckless, and just as important as not following too close and any of the other traffic laws we have on the books.”

Distracted Driving

The Statistics. NHTSA reports that 3,477 people were killed in crashes involving distracted driving in 2015, an 8.8 percent increase from 2014. Ten percent of fatal crashes and 16 percent of injury crashes in 2015 were reported as distraction-affected crashes.

According to a 2011 study by the CDC, 69 percent of American drivers ages 18 to 64 said they had talked on a cellphone and 31 percent said they had read or sent a text message while driving at least once in the previous 30 days. Virginia Tech Transportation Institute research from 2009 showed that the risk of a crash or near crash was more than 20 times higher for drivers distracted by texting than for those not using a phone. The study also revealed that texting drivers took their eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds over a 6-second interval—equivalent to the driver traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the road.

What States Are Doing. Forty-six states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands specifically ban texting while driving for all drivers. Some states moved to increase penalties for violating these laws in 2016. Louisiana, for example, increased its fine from $175 to $500 for the first offense and from $500 to $1,000 for subsequent offenses. Tennessee’s new law requires a person who violates the texting ban to complete a driver-education course.

Pennsylvania is the latest state to increase penalties for motorists whose texting while driving results in serious injury or death. The state’s 2016 law permits a sentencing enhancement of up to two years for crashes resulting in serious injury and up to five years for crashes resulting in death.

“Unfortunately, the use of communication devices continues to be a problem on Pennsylvania’s roads,” says Representative Mike Reese (R). “Like many transportation issues, curbing behaviors involves education and enforcement. It’s also important to have the appropriate penalties in place when necessary.”

Doug Shinkle, Anne Teigen and Amanda Essex cover traffic safety issues as part of NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation team.

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