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Submitted to Washington Post on 2012 -12-07, but not published


Keeping the Aurora, Colorado, movie- theater deaths in perspective

We are in a state of national mourning over the 12 tragic deaths in Aurora, Colorado. President Obama and Mr. Romney have suspended their campaigns to comfort bereaved parents of victims, stressing that they also are parents.

In 2010, the latest year for which we have complete data, more then four thousand people 19 years or younger were killed in traffic crashes on our roads; on average, 11 per day. The instant when parents realize that they have seen their child alive for the last time earlier that day will haunt them until their own deaths. They may hear the devastating news from a police officer. They will not hear about it in the media, nor get any presidential message of support. Where is the story in road deaths that occur, as they overwhelmingly do, one at a time? The average daily toll is 90; on the safest day, traffic deaths were more than three times those in the Aurora incident.

There is a fundamental difference between the movie theatre deaths and deaths in traffic.

A deranged individual with no prior record caused the movie-theatre deaths. There is little government can do about such individuals. Stricter gun control might help, but not much. Despite Norway's strict gun control, in July 2011 Behring Breivik murdered 90 victims, most of them young.

Governments have a core responsibility to prevent people from being killed in traffic. Every aspect of traffic involves government. Roads are designed and built by governments, cars are regulated and inspected by government, traffic law is created and enforced by government. Despite recent declines in national fatalities caused by the depressed economy, US safety policy is a dramatic failure compared to that in over two dozen other industrialized countries.

For example, in 2010 Sweden reported 287 traffic deaths. This is 78.1% below Sweden's all time high of 1313 in 1966. If the US total had fallen by 78.1% from its high, only 11,932 Americans would have died rather than the actual 32,885. Thus an incredible additional 20,000 Americans were killed in a single year because the US does not match Sweden's improvements.

Sweden is not untypical. It is the US that is very different from a couple of dozen industrialized countries. Why does the US do so dramatically worse than other countries? Basically, because we aggressively reject what 80 years of scientific research on traffic safety has taught. Our priorities are not random, but are systematically opposite to what they should be. Vehicle factors certainly are important, but other factors are vastly more important.

The most important factor influencing your safety in traffic is how you drive. Your driving is influenced by innumerable inputs from media as well as formal public policy. The second most important factor is how all the other drivers drive. This is overwhelmingly affected by public policy, especially speed limits and how they are enforced.

The effective way to sharply reduce traffic harm is "sensible traffic law sensibly enforced". Yet our public is inundated with incessant poisonous misinformation from our government and media. Every mention of a vehicle safety recall, a product liability award, crash test, airbag, latest safety gadget, Toyota phantom acceleration, etc. actively misinforms the public about what is important. To constantly misinform people increases the risk that you will be killed in traffic.

The government body most responsibility for the nation's dramatic failure in traffic safety is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA. It should be more appropriately named the National Highway VEHICLE Safety Administration so missfocussed are its safety priorities.

NHTSA reports via the Secretary of Transportation to the President. The President appoints the NHTSA administrator, the nation's top traffic safety official. The current administrator is a lawyer with no deep background in what science has discovered about traffic safety. The countries that have more than halved their fatalities have top safety officials with life-long careers steeped the technical content of traffic safety.

So Mr. President, please stop grandstanding over 12 deaths for which you have no responsibility, and start attending to your duty to sharply reduce the 33,000 deaths that occur annually on our roads.