What can possibly be good about 32,788 American traffic fatalities in one year? While it’s still too many, the number continues to decline. Based on estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the number of traffic fatalities in 2010 is the lowest since the government started to keep track in 1949. And the most amazing thing is that it keeps going down even while the number of miles driven keeps going up. The 2010 figure for vehicle miles traveled was three trillion. That’s the third highest ever recorded and an increase of 0.7 percent, or 1.4 billion miles, over 2009.
There are several key reasons for the steady decline in traffic fatalities. These include: more information and better enforcement on drunk driving, legislation requiring seatbelt usage, and education along with legislation about distracted driving. However, the single biggest reason for these figures – miles up, fatalities down – is the huge improvement in car safety. Automobile manufacturers are striving to make stronger, better-built cars with many advanced and new safety features.
Seatbelts have been standard equipment for many years and beginning with 1999 models the government mandated front airbags, although most new vehicles had them before they were required. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that through 2008 more than 28,000 people’s lives were saved by airbags alone. The agency also estimates that the combination of seatbelts and airbags reduces the risk of death in a collision by 61 percent, while seatbelts alone reduced fatalities by 50 percent. In rollovers, which account for 33 percent of passenger vehicle fatalities (more than 10,000 victims), an occupant is 75 percent less likely to be killed when wearing a seatbelt.
Most manufacturers now offer side airbags as standard equipment, although the law does not require them, and they have been proven effective. In driver-side crashes side airbags with head protection cut a car driver’s risk of death by 37 percent and an SUV driver’s risk by 52 percent. Side airbags without the extra head protection feature reduced fatality risk by 26 percent for car drivers and 30 percent for SUV drivers.
The NHTSA is ratcheting up its efforts. Beginning with the current model year, the agency will apply more stringent standards to its annual crash tests and provide the results to consumers on the new-car window sticker in the form of stars: One star is the lowest rating, five stars are the highest and a three is the passenger vehicle fleet average. Already, some new cars are scoring five stars in several of the tested categories.
For 20 model years, from 1990 through 2010, the government subjected new cars to tests for frontal and side crashes and rollover resistance using medium-sized adult male crash-test dummies. The “Enhanced Ratings” will also include testing with:
• New, advanced medium-sized adult male dummies
• New dummies representing small-sized adult females
• New side pole crash tests (such as would occur if you lost control of your vehicle and it slid sideways into a utility pole)
• More stringent ratings and injury criteria addressing additional body regions
• Combining results from all tests into an overall rating
• Information about new recommended advanced crash avoidance technology
There are three advanced crash avoidance technologies that are noted in the new NHTSA ratings. The first – Electronic Stability Control (ECS) – helps drivers maintain control of their vehicles when they try to turn very hard (swerve) or begin to skid on a slippery road. It will become mandatory on all new cars beginning with the 2012 model year. The other two are: Lane Departure Warning, that warns when vehicles drift unintentionally; and Forward Collision Warning, that detects vehicles in front of the driver’s and gives an alert of an impending crash.
Safety is just one factor you probably will consider when you buy your next new car, along with fuel efficiency, styling, comfort and bells and whistles like the sound and navigation systems available. As you begin your shopping, navigate over to http://www.safercar.gov for a downloadable brochure about the crash tests and safety ratings. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also conducts safety tests, and you can find its ratings at http://www.iihs.org/.