Auto safety has come a long way

During the holiday season, millions of people travel by car to celebrate with family and friends. While most don’t worry about dangers on the road, the truth is that traveling today is a lot safer than it was 30 years ago. Part of the reason is because of both corporate and government initiatives that found pragmatic solutions for transportation safety problems. 

In 1966 the government agency currently known as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was created to lead efforts to improve automobile safety. Despite its efforts, fatal crashes reached  51,093 in 1979, and the death rate per hundred million vehicle miles traveled was 3.26. Change was needed. 

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Initially doubt surrounded the safety benefits of passive restraints, or safety features that would protect the passenger without them having to take action (automatic seatbelts and airbags). Automatic seatbelts could be easily detached and airbags, which were not yet in widespread use, were considered too expensive. Because of these reasons, the Secretary of Transportation at the time decided to rescind NHTSA’s passive restraint requirement for all new vehicles. Consumer advocates, medical professionals and insurers were concerned; the voluntary seat belt usage rate in 1980 was only 11 percent and something needed to be done. 

State Farm™, an insurance company that had long focused on automobile and highway safety, stepped up in 1981 and took the lead in filing a lawsuit with the National Association of Independent Insurers regarding the decision to rescind the passive restraint rule. The suit argued that passive restraints, including automatic seatbelts that cannot be detached and airbags, were not only important to protect travelers on the road, but were not cost prohibitive.  The company brought in famed Yale Economist William Nordhaus to do a cost-benefit analysis using formulas developed by the Reagan Administration and NHTSA to show that installing these types of passive restraints would be beneficial for consumers. 

The lawsuit made it all the way to the Supreme Court in the case The Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association of the United States v State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance.  In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of requiring passive restraints in all passenger vehicles.  Airbags are now in the majority of vehicles and have saved an estimated 34,757 lives between 1987 and 2011. 

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to require passive restraints, and the evolution of safety successes has continued. Following the passive restraint requirements, those involved continued to work with NHTSA and other transportation organizations to determine cost-beneficial solutions to transportation safety issues. Following airbags, additional vehicle safety requirements included seatbelt laws and child safety seat restraints.  As a result of safety features on our roads and in our vehicles, the number of fatalities per hundred million vehicle miles traveled is down to 1.14; almost a third of what it had been in 1979.   

Since 1983, State Farm has continued its focus on driver and passenger safety. We are a founding member of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, two independent organizations that have been great partners for advancing safer vehicles. Additionally, State Farm partnered with The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia® (CHOP) for the first academic-corporate partnership devoted to the safety of children in motor vehicle crashes and a subsequent multi-year landmark study about teen car crashes, their causes, and potential countermeasures. We have also collaborated with the Department of Transportation on teen driver safety and distracted driving issues. As the nation’s largest auto insurer we are proud of our heritage of being a good neighbor by being a safety advocate for our policyholders and for all people.

While tremendous improvements have been made, our work is not complete. Last Thursday, State Farm announced that it will continue its heritage of focusing on driver safety issues by teaming up with Ford Motor Company to use a Ford Fusion Hybrid research vehicle to test current and future technology, including automated driving and other advanced technologies. More than 90 percent of vehicle crashes are caused by human error. To the extent automated vehicle technology and other technology advancements enhance auto and highway safety, we are excited about and supportive of these technologies. By working together to reduce the number of human errors that occur on our highways and roads, we can save lives and make highway travel a bit safer.  

Maness is Federal Affairs director for State Farm.