Good News on Auto Accident Trends

The number of traffic fatalities is going down--down 2 percent from 2005 to 2006.


When I was in second or third grade, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Mills, was killed in an auto accident. I was told that she was in a car hit head-on by someone going the wrong way on the then new Ohio Turnpike. She was an excellent teacher, and I still feel sad when I think of her death.

The number of people killed in traffic accidents every year is daunting: 42,682 in 2006.  That's more than the number of Americans killed in the Korean War and more than 10 times the number of Americans killed in Iraq.

But there's good news here. The number of traffic fatalities is going down—down 2 percent from 2005 to 2006. The relevant figure here is the number of traffic fatalities per 1 million miles driven. In 2006, that number was 1.42, the lowest number in American history, according to NHTSA's 2006 Traffic Safety Annual Assessment. Data from Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition, Volume 4, Pages 4-840 and 4-841, confirm this. There were 37,819 traffic fatalities, nearly 90 percent of the 2006 figure, as long ago as 1937, and the rate per million miles of travel was 14.00, nearly 10 times the rate for 2006. The peak years for traffic fatalities were 1969, 1972, and 1973, with 55,043, 55,600, and 55,096. But a lot more people were driving then than in 1937, and the fatalities per million miles driven had fallen to 5.18, 4.41, and 4.20, respectively. Now it's down to 1.42 per million miles driven—a huge change.

I get something of a shiver when I think back to those years, since I drove a lot more miles then than I do now. I have driven across the country only twice, in June 1969 and January 1972. In July 1972, I decided to drive down from Detroit, where I lived then, to the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. I went down without a hotel reservation or any guarantee of access to the convention. As it turned out, I got a hotel room and a set of floor passes within a day when I arrived. But I almost didn't make it. On the trip down, I decided to make a detour and drive southeast of Chattanooga, Tenn., on Interstate 59, so that I could say that I had set foot in Alabama, a state I had never been in. At one point, I thought about passing the car ahead of me, then decided I was going fast enough and just stayed in the right lane. A few minutes later, a car came down the left lane, heading in the wrong direction. Would I have died in a head-on collision if I had moved out to pass, as Mrs. Mills had two decades before? Quite possibly. I still get something of a chill when I think about it.

Why are traffic fatalities so much less frequent, per million miles traveled, today than they were years ago? Because learning is cumulative. And because we, as a society, have taken intelligent steps to reduce traffic fatalities. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in the 1950s urging that cars be built more safely. He made a distinction between the external collision, between vehicle and vehicle (or fixed object), and the internal collision, between the occupant of the car and the interior of the vehicle. The internal collision, he argued, could be prevented or the damage reduced by seat belts and other devices (like the airbags that were later developed). In the 1960s, Ralph Nader followed Moynihan's lead and urged that cars be required to be built with more safety features. Congress and the regulators acted; auto manufacturers also worked to make their products safer. Roads are designed to be safer; nobody's building anything like the 1940s Pennsylvania Turnpike anymore. Crackdowns on drunk driving have clearly had an impact in reducing fatalities. And drivers have learned how to drive more safely. Government, private-sector firms, voluntary associations, conscientious individuals—all have played a role. While we're busy complaining about things, we ought to take a minute to appreciate this positive trend.

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