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        Chapter 16 of Traffic Safety (Copyright 2004 by Leonard Evans) titled 

Vision for a Safer Tomorrow  presents the issues in this editorial in greater depth and detail.

   San Francisco

November 25, 2002

A plan for traffic safety


Special to The Examiner

    WHILE THE events of Sept. 11 are burnished in our memories, the events of October, November, December, January, on and on, pass unnoticed. In a typical month, more Americans die on our roads than are killed by terrorists.

    The time is overdue to think about assumptions that culminate in the deaths of 42,000 Americans per year. More than 29,000 die in crashes involving a driver other than the victim. This majority includes pedestrians, passengers and drivers killed in two-vehicle crashes.

    The major risks we face are from drivers traveling at illegal speeds and running red lights. These risks can be reduced by combining new thinking with new technology. We can benefit from such technology only after we warmly embrace a principle that is already implicitly accepted, namely that driving is a public, not a private, activity. The privacy that is rightly sacrosanct for private activities should not apply to driving because of the enormous threat it imposes on others.

    U.S. traffic policy since the 1970s has been dominated by the delusion that safety can be achieved by changing vehicles to increase survivability in crashes.

    As measured by traffic deaths per million registered vehicles, the U.S. was the safest nation in the world in the early 1970s. Today it is in 13th place, and still dropping. Better-performing countries have not done anything that is either extraordinary or draconian -- they have simply not fallen into the obsessive focus on marginal factors such as tires, vehicle defects and airbags that dominate U.S. safety policy.

    The public would embrace the use of technology to effectively enforce traffic laws if it were a central component of broader policy changes which included the following four modest, yet revolutionary, changes.

    - Traffic laws should have one purpose -- to prevent injuries and deaths. Using traffic law to raise revenue brings it into disrepute. Traffic safety should be a government service supported by taxes. Given that traffic crashes cost our nation $200 billion per year, public expenditures that reduce crashes pay handsome dividends.

    - Automatically-detected minor violations should receive no punishments for first or very infrequent offenses. A gentle letter explaining the purpose of traffic law would enhance safety more than punishment. Repeat and more major violations would receive increasing fines. The goal is to increase public support for safer traffic, not to alienate average citizens.

    - All traffic fines should be kept in a separate account, and distributed to license holders as an annual bonus.

    - Automatic monitoring associates law violations with vehicle license plates, not drivers. Law changes would be necessary to make owners responsible for taking care of citations.

    These proposals would save tens of thousands of lives annually and not inconvenience, delay, embarrass or disadvantage any law-abiding citizen.

Leonard Evans is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Association and the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine.