Car accidents killed 37,000 people last year — it’s time to act

Car accidents killed 37,000 people last year — it’s time to act
© Greg Nash

According to just-released stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 37,000 people died from motor vehicle crashes in 2016, making it a leading cause of death in the United States. This follows the record increase in traffic fatalities in 2015, which saw a 7.2 percent increase in deaths from the year before. In fact, it marked the largest year-over-year increase since 1966.

These statistics should give us pause to reflect on the risks inherent to driving. Impaired driving, speeding, failure to use seatbelts and distracted driving all contributed to this trend. The good news is we live in a time when in the near future, as some have predicted, wide adoption of autonomous vehicles may one day help us achieve zero traffic fatalities. Until then, however, governors and state and local officials are focused on more immediate solutions—policy and law enforcement strategies they can adopt to reverse the pattern.

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Later this fall, the National Governors Association (NGA) will release a road map, “State Strategies to Reduce Highway and Traffic Fatalities and Injuries: A Roadmap for States,” designed to assist governors and senior state officials in their efforts to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries. This roadmap will highlight proven strategies states can use to align state and local efforts, prevent risky road behavior and address systemic barriers to traffic crash response. It draws upon the latest research and lessons learned from four states participating in an NGA traffic safety learning lab.

 

In advance of that release, we make the following recommendations as policy experts who work with state officials in the transportation and public safety sectors every day:

First, improve enforcement of impaired driving laws. State officials should ensure that law enforcement officers are properly trained, meaning they are equipped to detect and implement impaired-driving enforcement. Deploying drug-recognition experts can help, particularly in cases of marijuana impairment. These officers are specifically trained to identify signs of impairment in the field, and they can aid in the administration of drug testing. Training, including the use of statewide safety summits, can also help judges, prosecutors and emergency medical service providers. 

Second, target high-risk speeding corridors. Officials can use data to enforce speed limits in these areas as well as those with high traffic-injury and fatality reporting. They should encourage cross-agency information sharing to communicate high-risk or at-risk corridors to law enforcement. Such approaches can help officials use limited resources to greater effect.   

Third, expand outreach and public education around safe driving practices. Education is key, even when it means reminding people to wear a seat belt. Awareness of roadway risks, as well as adherence to traffic safety laws, go a long way toward keeping everyone safer. States can support media and communications campaigns to increase public awareness and strengthen enforcement efforts. 

Though our law enforcement officials are most visible in protecting everyone’s safety on the road, governors have a critical part to play, too. For example, they can help bring greater attention to the increase in traffic fatalities and injuries, as well as greater awareness of the types of behaviors that lead to mortality on our highways. Perhaps most important and farthest reaching in scope, they define a state’s priorities, set targeted goals for improving highway safety and ensure coordination across state agencies.

Even with every single governor’s commitment to improve traffic safety, it would not be enough. State and local officials must coordinate, and public buy-in is essential. 

Together we can ensure wherever we’re headed —  to work, school, out on the town or out for a scenic drive — we’ll get there safely.

Sue Gander is the director of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices Environment, Energy and Transportation Division. Jeff McLeod is the director of the Homeland Security and Public Safety division.