A Deadly Story We Keep Missing reads the headline of a hand-wringing article by Peter J. Woolley, a “professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University and executive director of PublicMind, a public opinion research group there.” The article is basically a call to arms to reduce the horrendous death toll due to automobile accidents.
After giving us a list of macabre numerical comparisons where he explains that 44,000 is a big number – a really, really, really big number – he finally gets to the point:
Roads need to be made safer, for example, by extending guardrails and medians to every mile of busy highways. Speeding and aggressive driving need to be much more rigorously controlled. Trucks need to be separated from automobiles wherever possible. And cars need to be built slower and stronger.
And of course the eeeevil and complacent lawmakers and car manufacturers won’t do anything about this urgent problem. But wait – how urgent is it? Has there been a sudden surge in fatalities?
Well no, according to that figure (lifted from the NHTSA). Traffic fatalities have in fact remained pretty constant over the past 17 years. But wait – the population and commuting distances have increased significantly since 1988. Shouldn’t we measure the traffic fatalities in terms of the number of miles driven? Why yes we should, and here’s another chart lifted from the NHSTA source showing the number of fatalities per 100 million miles driven.
Wow. A pretty dramatic change since the bad old driving days of the 1970′s. And all for the better. What emergency was it that Woolley was so het up about?
Why the increase in 2005? But there’s that troublesome uptick in 2005 compared to 2004. It’s minor, but what’s really going on there? Well it turns out that the group with the largest increase in fatalities was motorcyclists. Motorcyclist fatalities have increased steadily since 1997, as shown in yet another chart taken from the NHSTA link:
But hey – motorcycles weren’t on Woolley’s list, were they? Nyoop. One might suspect that he’s either pulling his position out of his hindquarters, or that he is prosecuting an agenda that requires him to obscure the facts. His suggestions certainly aren’t reflective of the real problems in automobile accidents.
So if you’re suspecting that Woolley’s claims of an urgent problem are wildly overblown, and that his solutions have nothing to do with the real problems in automotive accidents, then you and I are on the same page.
We’re locked in by Smeed’s Law. But what do we do about car safety? Surely something can be done!! Well, there are indications helmet laws would reduce the number of motorcycle fatalities, but that assumes that driver behavior would remain static. Let me introduce you to something called Smeed’s Law.
Smeed’s law raises the conclusion that “accident statistics do not measure safety or danger; as traffic increases, the death toll is contained, and sometimes reduced, by behaviour that avoids danger rather than removing it.” (Adams, 1995)
Thus even modern, “safe” vehicles driven in countries with low rates of car ownership generate a death rate that can be predicted by Smeed’s law. Neither safe vehicles nor safe roads can reduce the death rate, but rather people adjusting to the dangers of motor vehicles.
Summary. The bottom line is that driver’s adjust driving habits to take advantage of improved safety measures, improved road conditions, or risky conditions. Legislating for safer cars just means that drivers will drive more aggressively. Building safer roads tempts drivers to drive faster.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t continue to improve cars, roads, and approaches to safety, but Woolley has shown us no pressing need to accelerate those efforts, no sign that his remedies are relevant to the problem, and no indication that they would have any beneficial effect even if they were relevant.
I’d say the eeevil and complacent lawmakers and car manufacturers are doing just fine.