Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Will more safety laws decrease traffic deaths?

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety recently released its annual Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws after the United States came off its second consecutive year of increasing traffic deaths. Their solution to traffic deaths: more safety laws.

Before we get into the advocacy group’s report, let’s establish the undeniable facts. More than 35,000 people were killed in crashes in 2015, the largest percentage increase in nearly half a century. Preliminary data for 2016 is not faring any better. More people are dying on the roadways. We can all agree on that.

There are many theories regarding how we as a nation can solve this problem. Here’s Advocates’ solution: “…we cannot forget that state adoption of comprehensive traffic safety laws is the most effective countermeasure to avert crashes, save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs to the public and to the government.”

More specifically, Advocates argues that more state laws need to be enacted. The group claims that “states are missing 376 traffic safety laws,” including seatbelt, helmet, child restraints, teen driver training, impaired and distracted driving laws: 

  • 16 states need an optimal primary enforcement seat belt law for front seat passengers;
  • 32 states need an optimal primary enforcement seat belt law for rear seat passengers;
  • 31 states need an optimal all-rider motorcycle helmet law;
  • 39 states and D.C. need an optimal booster seat law;
  • 213 Graduated Driver Licensing laws need to be adopted to ensure the safety of novice drivers;no state meets all the criteria recommended in this report;
  • 35 critical impaired driving laws are needed in 33 states; and,
  • 9 states need an optimal all-driver text messaging restriction. 

The first three recommendations are what many refer to as “Nanny State Laws,” when a government or its policies are overprotective or interfering unduly with personal choice, as defined by the Oxford dictionary. They are in place to protect ourselves from ourselves rather than prevent accidental deaths caused by someone else.

Everyone knows the dangers of not wearing a seat belt/helmet or even texting while jaywalking. At this point, more laws will not increase awareness of something that is universally known. If someone wants to risk their lives by not wearing a seat belt or helmet, that’s as much of a right as deciding to swim with sharks. Both are dangerous, personal choices that harm no one else in the process.

Those who violate booster seat laws, impaired driving laws, and text messaging laws all put other, innocent people at risk. Therefore, such laws should most definitely be enacted, regardless of traffic death statistics. Victims of such crashes never had a choice in the matter. I’m with Advocates on that.

As far as Graduated Driver Licensing laws is concerned, which account for the majority of the recommended 376 safety laws, does this sound familiar? Maybe rephrasing it as “driver training” will jog your memory. We all agree that driver training is necessary. If teens need better training to drive a Toyota Camry, then why is the trucking industry having such a difficult time convincing Congress to pass adequate driver training laws?

But will passing all these laws significantly decrease traffic deaths?

Probably not, and here’s why:

Although Advocates was quick to mention the number of traffic deaths in 2015, the group failed to mention other stats that are absolutely necessary for the conversation. First, fuel prices were insanely low in 2015, which led to record number miles traveled and vehicles on the road. There is a negative correlation with fuel prices and traffic deaths – i.e., the lower the prices the more deaths. When significantly more data points are added (in this case, more drivers), then statistically you’ll see higher results (more deaths).

People are always going to die on the roadways. It’s a harsh reality we have to come to terms with. Sometimes we’ll see more deaths in a year due to the unintended consequences of favorable economic conditions such as low fuel prices, higher wages and lower unemployment.

While I am certainly in favor of several of the laws that Advocates recommend, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that safety laws are the catch-all solution to an increase in traffic deaths. I’ll meet them in the middle of the road (blocked off for safety, of course) and suggest we focus on the laws that have the most significant impact, such as driver training.