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Submitted to, but not accepted, by New York Times ( 2013-03-31) with similar fate for slightly earlier version to Washington Times. 


Sandy Hook school shootings, gun control, and political grandstanding


President Obama proclaims "Shame on us" because stricter gun-control legislation has not been passed one hundred days after the Sandy Hook shootings. In this appalling episode a mentally deranged gunman killed 20 children 7 years or younger. Eight adults were also killed, for a total loss of life of 28. This tragedy remains in the forefront of the nation's conscience, news, and politics.

In the 100 days since that tragedy, 150 children 7 years or younger have been killed in traffic crashes on the nation's roads.

School shootings are bizarre unpredictable events, whereas traffic deaths occur with depressing predictability. The above estimate is based on 2011 data, but is similar for other years. Year after year remarkably similar numbers of babies, toddlers, infants, children, and especially teenagers, are killed on our roads.

The most basic difference between deaths in school shootings and in traffic arises because there is little government can do to appreciably reduce the likelihood that a mentally ill person will create carnage. While stricter gun control makes sense, it can have no real effect for decades. Despite Norway's strict gun control, in July 2011 Behring Breivik murdered 90 victims, most of them young.

While government can do little to prevent future Sandy Hooks, government is responsible for nearly everything that happens in traffic. It builds the roads, regulates the vehicles, licenses the drivers, sets the speed limits, informs the public, and passes and enforces traffic law.

In the United States, governments have failed abysmally in providing safe road travel. How could it be otherwise when 32,367 people were killed on America's roads in 2011, including 62 babies not yet one year old. And 564 children 7 years and younger. This is equivalent to more than two Sandy Hooks per month - and government has intimate responsibility for these deaths. Totals could be cut in half if only the US applied widely known science.

This is not wild speculation. Many countries have already achieved much larger reductions. For example, the number of traffic deaths in the Netherlands in 2011 was 83% below their all-time high. If traffic deaths in the United States had dropped by 83% from our all-time high, we would have killed 9,132 rather than 32,367 in 2011. In other words, by not matching the reduction achieved in the Netherlands, more than 20,000 additional Americans died.

The Netherlands is not all that unusual. Many other countries, including Britain, Sweden, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, and Denmark provide a similarly stark contrast with the US. It is the US that is unusual.

At the core of the dramatic failure of US safety is our obsessive focus on vehicle factors. This is completely opposite to what science shows. While vehicle factors are important, they are not nearly as important as roadway factors. Towering over both in importance is how people drive. Yet the US approach is topsy turvey, placing most emphasis where benefits are least and least emphasis on where benefits are greatest.

Government and media largely determine what drivers believe about safety. Beliefs are of overwhelming importance. Americans are exposed to thousands of stories like "A million xyz vehicles were recalled because of a safety defect in the ignition circuit. No injuries are reported." How can this possibly have any relevance to safety when on a typical day 90 Americans are killed and 6,000 injured on our roads. And 99.5% of drivers do not even own this vehicle.

Claiming that this, and so much more, relates to safety misinforms the public. It is the most harmful form of driver distraction. It distracts drivers from understanding the most central findings from the scientific study of traffic safety. Namely, that the most important thing is how you drive. The second most important is how everyone else drives. It is government policies that largely determine the behavior of drivers in traffic, especially through speed limits and other traffic laws relating to intersections, distraction, alcohol, etc.

By far the greatest risk of death children face is in traffic. Vastly more kids are killed by speeding drivers than in school shootings. Overwhelmingly, these speeding drivers are sober. It is known how to sharply reduce traffic risk, as has been done in dozens of countries. The recipe is simple. Stop thinking that traffic safety has mainly to do with vehicles. Dramatic reductions in deaths can be achieved by knowledge-based traffic safety laws sensibly enforced.

Indeed - shame on us for grandstanding instead of pursuing what is known to really save children's lives.