• Aug 12th 2006 at 11:56AM
  • 20

The number of fatal crashes on U.S. roads have steadily declined over the last few decades and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has found that this has little do with a safer motoring public and more to do with safer vehicle design.

Their findings confirm what has been assumed for years, that as more safety equipment is added and eventually mandated, drivers who would have been killed years earlier in older models are now surviving with greater frequency.

The study also points to the lack of required seat belt usage in some states and the waning enforcement of DWI charges as worrisome developments. These concerns, coupled with speed limits that have steadily increased across the country, are providing the IIHS a bleak outlook on the future.

One glaring omission in the press release (printed after the jump) is the effect of driver training programs on new drivers and how further driver improvement is a necessity to decrease on-road fatalities.


Declining death rates due to safer vehicles, not better drivers or improved roadways

ARLINGTON, VA -ARLINGTON, VA - The designs of passenger vehicles have been improving for years, becoming more protective of their occupants in crashes. Without these improvements, the motor vehicle death rate per registered vehicle would have stopped declining in 1994 and started going up. This is the main finding of a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"Death rates per vehicle and per mile have been going down for decades, and they still are. This study shows why," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "In recent years it's the vehicles, not better drivers or improved roadways. The study reveals not only the importance of the vehicle design changes and the kinds of vehicles motorists are choosing to drive but, on the downside, the loss of momentum for effective traffic safety policies on belt use, alcohol-impaired driving, and speeding."

The researchers separated vehicle effects from other effects on motor vehicle death rates during 1985-2004 by estimating what the death rate trend would have been if vehicle designs hadn't changed over the years - that is, if people still were driving the kinds of vehicles they drove in 1985. The death rate trend given this hypothetical vehicle fleet started to go up in the 1990s, which is very different from the actual downward trend during the past 10 years.

"This suggests that an increasingly dangerous traffic environment has been offset since 1994 only because people are driving vehicles that are more protective," Lund points out. "Of course the vehicle design changes are good, but people shouldn't have to buy new, more crashworthy vehicles to maintain their safety. Our concern is that the efforts we had been seeing in the 1980s to mandate belt use and toughen DWI laws diminished in the 1990s at the same time that states were raising speed limits. This produced an increasingly dangerous traffic environment. It has become dangerous enough that, without the design improvements that have made vehicles more crashworthy, death rates would have started up. An estimated 5,200 additional lives would have been lost in 2004 without the vehicle design changes."

To clarify what has been making deaths per registered vehicle go down, Institute researchers focused on two factors that influenced the driver death rate during 1985-2004. One is how vehicle use patterns change as vehicles age. The other is vehicle design changes - the introduction over time of different types of vehicles and more crashworthy ones to replace vehicles that weren't doing as good a job of protecting their occupants. In the US fleet these two factors can have countervailing influences. As vehicles age, their death rates go up. On the other hand, more crashworthy vehicles have been introduced, and their death rates are lower than in the older vehicles they replaced. Plus the types of vehicles in the fleet have shifted, and the shift from driving cars to SUVs can change the death rates.

The researchers computed death rates for vehicle models that didn't change in design over three model years - 1996-98 models during 1999, for example. This eliminated the effects of any design changes on the death rate because there were no such changes. Computing the rates for several model year groups without design changes during individual calendar years, the researchers found that, on average, the death rate per registered vehicle increased 1 to 5 percent in each year of the first 7 years on the road.

Then the researchers separated out vehicle design effects on death rates by following the same vehicles over time. The rates still were affected by vehicle aging so, having already estimated the age effects, the researchers factored them out too. This is when the data revealed that the downward trend in death rates would have ended in the early 1990s. An upward trend would have begun if not for the changes in vehicle designs.

"The downward trend in death rates even as speed limits were being raised on US roads led some speed advocates to argue that posted limits don't matter," Lund says. "But our research shows that speed limits do matter because, once we adjusted for vehicle age and design, what became clear are the escalating dangers of everyday traffic. We have serious problems out there with faster travel speeds, and we need to address these problems with effective policies. Of course, we also need to continue to improve vehicles because right now this is the main protection in crashes associated with unchecked driving behavior like speeding."

The research report, "Trends over time in the risk of driver death: what if vehicle designs had not improved?" by C.M. Farmer and A.K. Lund will be published in the journal, Traffic Injury Prevention, later this year.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 9 Years Ago
      Well I agree RDL but to fund all that stuff (cars, tires, a truck to dump all that water, people, blah blah) will be cost too much and some people might just try the test just to burn rubber.

      But I'm sure "using a manual transmission" will surely turn away a lot of people.

      Driving is a "privilege" not a right.

      Factor in the fact that the automotive companies are businesses, they have to find a way to increase sales right. So why not make cars for less talented people and you have what you are seeing today.
      • 9 Years Ago
      that photo is horrifying!
      • 9 Years Ago
      Of all the vehicles the H2 could have crashed into, it was a dually with probably an equally robust frame. Imagine if it hit a small hatchback!

      Actually looking at pictures of crash damage, the fact that the front was so smashed in is a good thing and shows that the crumple zones were doing their job by absorbing crash energy. The same goes when you see all those Enzo crashes - the car explodes into a thousand carbon fiber bits, but the idiot drivers survive. That's modern safety for ya.
      • 9 Years Ago
      I saw that exact picture on Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson says "Oh, that's run into an American's buttock!"
      • 9 Years Ago
      Whats even scarier about that picture is that that is a residential neighbor hood which means speeds of 25 to 35 MPH so a max of 70 MPH combined force did that damage to both vehicles. Now imagine that at highway speeds of 55 or 65 which means 110 or 130 MPH and imagine the damage.
      • 9 Years Ago
      "So why haven't auto insurance rates decreased?"

      The standard response from the auto insurance industry is that rates depend primarily on collision expenses followed by theft, rather than injury losses.

      It's interesting how "the escalating dangers of everyday trafic" morphs into "We have serious problems out there with faster travel speeds,". There is no indication that the study looked specifically at the impact of travel speeds or speed limits.
      • 9 Years Ago
      in other news, water is wet
      • 9 Years Ago
      i agree with the people who have been saying that learning to drive a stick and passing tests. i am 16 and just got a '00 civic 5sp. i have learned to drive in the wet and to slide around. because of these skills i feel more confident in everyday traffic and think it should be mandatory. many of my friends have their brand new suvs and most have crashed them.
      • 9 Years Ago
      Will these surviving drivers continue their bad habits to crash again?
      The reason insurance rates have not decreased is it costs more to rehabilitate survivors than bury dead people. -Daggy
      • 9 Years Ago
      uh...the title says "decling"...which I don't believe is a word
      • 9 Years Ago
      That picture is very disturbing. I wonder if the folks in the hummer survived?
      The pickup looks to have received less damage, btw.


      • 9 Years Ago
      I'm amazed the rate has dropped with all of the hand held cell phone use and other distractions like dvd players. Granted those are mainly in back, but a distraction none the less.
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