Indeed, if Congress really wanted to improve traffic safety, they should have brought in traffic safety experts from other countries instead of Toyota's CEO. After all, many other countries have made huge strides in cutting highway fatalities while the U.S. has, by comparison, stalled out.
Up to the late 1970s, the U.S. had the safest traffic in the world, with fatality rates far lower than any other country. But by 2002, the U.S. had fallen to 16th place, behind Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, etc.
Here's another way to look at it: If the U.S. had done as good a job in cutting highway fatalities as Great Britain since 1979, more than 15,000 lives would have been saved in the U.S. in one year alone. If we'd matched Australia's success over these years, we could be saving more than 19,000 lives a year. (See chapter 15 of my book "Traffic Safety" for a detailed accounting of this.)
What would Congress learn if they bothered to talk to safety-science experts about these successes and our failure?
They'd find out that our country's focus on auto technology is killing us.
The agency responsible for the nation's traffic safety is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It might be better named the National Highway Vehicle Safety Administration, because its activities so preferentially focus on the vehicle.
In 2004 alone, NHTSA issued more than 30 million vehicle recall notices (about 1.7 recalls for every new vehicle sold). But there is no evidence that all this activity and expense contributed to safety. About a quarter of recalls were ignored. Despite the prodigious sample sizes generated by decades of recalls, there is no evidence that the vehicles not fixed pose higher risks than those fixed.
But what the science of traffic safety has shown, and what other countries have come to accept, is that while vehicle factors are indeed important to safety, they are not nearly as important as driver factors.
Take red-light running, for example. Over the past decade, about 8,000 people were killed in "running the red" crashes. We know that red-light cameras can substantially cut these deaths, and better performing countries have far more embraced red-light cameras than has the U.S.
The countries with better safety also place more emphasis on traffic law obedience, drunk driving, distracted driving and speed compliance, with speed cameras being more widely adopted. But the main difference is in public attitudes -- the understanding that safety is about drivers, not vehicles. Britain and Australia run very effective advertisements aimed at young people showing the profound difference driving just a little slower can make in saving a life.
Another difference is treatment of radar detectors. These have but one purpose: to help drivers successfully exceed posted speed limits. They are illegal in Canada but marketed intensely in the U.S. How many people are killed because of radar detectors? My guess is many more than by Toyota defects. But we don't know. Why? Because we don't do the research.
The relationship between speed and risk is central to traffic safety. Yet all the important relevant research has been performed outside the U.S. Countries like Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and Australia -- although much smaller than the U.S. -- support institutions devoted to doing real traffic safety research.
What's worse, the massive coverage of Toyota's problems reinforces the misinformation that is at the heart of the U.S. safety disaster. The coverage loudly proclaims the falsehood that safety is about vehicles and technology. That might help trial lawyers who want to get fat suing automakers (as well as politicians who get some of the booty in the form of campaign contributions), but it drowns out the truth about highway safety: that it has to do with drivers.
One of government's central responsibilities is to protect innocent citizens from being harmed by others. It is public policy regarding such matters as running red lights, speeding, reckless driving, drunk driving and distracted driving that are central to safety. Public policy is the business of Congress. This is what they have a responsibility to do. They don't know how to build or fix cars.
So instead of grandstanding over Toyota's problems, Congress should be asking why 100 Americans die on our roads per day (yes, per day!) and why we aren't doing as good a job as other countries are in cutting this daily carnage.
Leonard Evans is an internationally recognized traffic safety expert who spent 33 years with General Motors Research Laboratories and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He is author of "Traffic Safety." His previous op-eds for AOL News include The Lesson of Toyota's Recall and Auto Technology That Kills.
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