When I was growing up as a kid, cars didn't have a whiff of safety equipment. No seatbelts. No headrests. No collapsible steering columns. No nothing. On long trips my dad would even let me or one of my brothers lie on the package shelf behind the back seat. And we weren't the only ones. That was a pretty common practice back then.
Even so, up through the 1960s, the United States had the best traffic safety record in the world. But as the population continued to grow and as more cars appeared on the roads, the fatality rate grew with them. And so the government began enacting safety standards.

And boy, did we pile on the regulations. Today, the U.S. has more safety laws and by far the strictest ones of any country. And yet we've dropped to 16th place in the global rankings. What's going on here? How come countries with weaker regulations are getting better results?

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers. Follow the jump to finish reading this week's editorial.

Every year like clockwork, there are 42,000 people killed in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. Several million more are injured, many of them badly. This, despite the fact that we have the strictest air bag regulations. We have the strictest regulations for full frontal crashes and off-set frontal. We have the most stringent side and rear crash standards. In fact, we even crash test our vehicles at higher speeds than the law requires because safety advocates have made sure that's the defacto law. Unlike any other country in the world, automakers here have to publish how many "stars" their cars get in these crashes so that the public will buy the safest cars.

Right now there's a big push to improve roof-crush safety. But let me make an easy prediction. It won't have much effect.

Safety advocates want the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to double the standard because roll-overs account for only 3% of all accidents, but nearly 25% of all fatalities-about 10,000 a year.

Yet, when you dive into the details you find that the vast majority of those killed in roll-overs were thrown from the vehicle because they weren't wearing a seat belt. NHTSA's own analysis shows the new roof-crush standard might, maybe, possibly, hopefully save a couple of hundred lives a year.

Ironically, stronger roofs will end up making vehicles top heavy and raise their center of gravity, making them more likely to roll. Worse yet, emergency rescue personnel complain they already have trouble cutting through roofs that use high strength steel. They typically go through several saw blades before they can cut through-not the sort of thing you want happening during an emergency.

The big difference between the United States and those countries that have a better safety record (Western Europe and Japan) is that they vigorously enforce their seat belt laws. They really force people to buckle up. Just as importantly, they have far fewer law suits against automakers.

Let's face it, if you can pin the blame for a traffic fatality on an automaker, you can make a lot of money in the United States. It's not that hard to swing a jury to favor a deceased plaintiff when their bereaved family is weeping in the courtroom-especially when the other side is a big corporation represented by company lawyers. But if you sue the driver at fault for not wearing a seat belt (or being drunk, asleep, careless or high), well, there's not much money in that.

And so we have a system with the world's strictest and costliest regulations that are barely making a dent in reducing traffic fatalities and injuries.

We pretend to protect our citizens with stricter laws and multi-million dollar lawsuits, while other countries produce better results without going through this entire charade. Yes, a charade. With tens of thousands of lives at stake every year, what else can you call it?

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