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Automobile deaths, injuries are rising rapidly: A changed direction in infrastructure bill offers hope

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Automobile death and injury rates on our highways spiked by a shocking 10,000 people in 2021, topping out at more than 40,000 deaths and over four million crash-caused injuries, according to U.S. Department of Transportation estimates. This would be the largest annual fatality increase since 2006—more than 18 percent higher than the death rate in 2020.

Most Americans are generally aware of the current auto safety problem. What most people do not know is that buried in the thousand-page Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in October 2021, is a section that could reverse this deadly trend.

After years of declining deaths and injuries, triggered by government mandated safety standards, such as air bags and seat belts, and by safer automobile designs, this year will see the largest death and accident rate increase in two decades. 

The extraordinary increase is also reflected in dollars; lost wages and money spent to treat injured motorists and pedestrians (a staggering $871 billion a year, or $2,600 a year for every person in the United States)… as well, of course, as in the incalculable toll of human suffering.

“This is a crisis,” Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, has aptly called it. “We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America.” 

The reasons for the sharp rise in deadly crashes are complex. Some may be related to the mental health impact of the pandemic on drivers. Some of them have taken to the road and driven recklessly, drunk or too fast or failed to wear their seatbelts.

Another reason may be the increase in sales of larger cars such as SUVs and pickup trucks, which tend to cause more deaths and injuries when they collide with smaller cars, pedestrians, or bicyclists.

The projected increase in car crashes in 2022 will have reversed twenty years of auto safety progress in just two years.

Buttigieg made his comment on the current crisis as his department released, to the states,  $260 million of the $500 million authorized by the bipartisan Infrastructure Act for new safety programs.

That isn’t all that the law could do to help reverse the highway safety crisis.

While the Infrastructure Act was primarily intended to deliver big money to the states for the improvement or repair of crumbling roads, bridges, pipelines, internet broadband access and power grids, it also contains little-noticed sections designed to implement a reduction in the rising toll of automobile crashes, deaths and injuries.

Among the auto safety provisions in the Infrastructure law that will mandate safer vehicle construction and enact procedures to avoid or minimize auto deaths and injuries are:

Improved headlights that can vary the beam direction to avoid blinding oncoming drivers. (Such headlights are now required on European cars but are found only on a few high end cars in the U.S.)

–Updated back-seat safety standards designed to prevent impact injuries to rear-seat passengers.

–New front seatback standards primarily to avoid injury from passengers being hurled backward onto rear seat occupants in crashes.

–Incorporation of crash avoidance technology in all new cars, such as the currently optional emergency braking and lane-change warning systems, now found on some higher priced models,

–New federal hood and bumper standards (now also required for European cars) that will better protect pedestrians and bicyclists upon impact with the sometimes sharp front end of a colliding vehicle.

The new law also calls for reports to help move the ball forward on such safety issues as drunk and impaired driving, automobile recall and repair effectiveness primarily by manufacturers, and the availability of child safety seats to low-income families.

These little-noticed safety provisions have been a long time in coming, but here they are, a few pages tucked into the 1039 pages of the Infrastructure Act, which was sponsored by President Biden and passed by Congress with support from both Republicans and Democrats.

While the vehicle safety provisions may appear to be a modest part of the new law, we should celebrate that the often deadlocked Congress passed legislation that can have a major impact in reversing the shocking increase in vehicle crashes and in the lives lost or forever changed on our nation’s roads. 

Michael R. Lemov is an attorney who served as Counsel for House Commerce Committee under Congressman John Moss. He is the author of “People’s Warrior:  John Moss and the Fight for Freedom of Information and Consumer Rights”; Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011, and “Car Safety Wars: 100 Years of Technology, Politics and Death”; Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015. Mr. Lemov was a principal author of the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Motor Vehicle Safety Amendments and other federal safety statutes.

Tags auto safety automobile deaths Biden car crash highway bill Pete Buttigieg

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