Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A little history always helps

This morning's WSJ cited new data on highway safety ("AAA Says Auto Accidents Cost $164.2 Billion a Year"). Scary.

Automobile crashes cost the U.S. $164.2 billion annually, or $1,051 per person, according to a report AAA plans to release today.

The automobile association says that even though drivers tend to focus more on how traffic congestion hurts productivity and makes travelers miserable, the actual cost of crashes totals more than twice the cost of congestion. The human toll is also more daunting: 42,642 people died in automobile crashes in 2006, which equates to about 117 deaths per day and almost five per hour. ...

But historic contex is always useful, as in Monday's WSJ "Deja Vu" column, Cynthia Crossen wrote about the U.S. history of auto safety ("Unsafe at Any Speed, With Any Driver On Any Kind of Road").

Every year, about 42,000 people die in automobile-related accidents in the U.S. In 1930, when there were about a tenth of the number of autos on the road, more than 31,000 people in the U.S. were killed by cars. "The automobile is here to slay," said one newspaper, its typo speaking volumes.

A typical headline in a regional newspaper of the early decades of the 20th century was "Twenty-One Persons Meet Death in Auto Accidents on Sunday" or "16 Killed, 31 Others Injured in Traffic Crashes" or "Accidents
Set New Record." Cars were one of the biggest public-health hazards of the era, but there was no easy cure because there were so many culprits -- careless drivers, absent-minded pedestrians, unsafe vehicles, poor roads, lack of traffic laws and, of course, drunkenness and speeding.

The first horseless carriages were relatively slow, broke down frequently and didn't hurt many more people than wagons and horses did. But as cars picked up speed, the number of accidents, and fatalities, began to climb steeply. Early cars had weak brakes, tires that blew out, headlights that glared, plate-glass windows that shattered, a high center of gravity that made them easy to flip (or "turn turtle," as they called it at the time), no seat belts and often soft roofs or no roofs at all.

And that was when the cars were new. After a few years of wear and tear, they were even more dangerous. A free inspection program of motor vehicles in New York State in 1927 found 39% of the 400,000 vehicles inspected had serious defects. ....