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How can road safety be better addressed in the USA?

Condolences to those family, friends and folks in our community who knew those young people killed, hurt or arrested in our recent nearby car crashes. These are too similar to circumstances for several kids I knew when growing up in New Milford decades ago, or the same that happened when I was a teacher at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village, and, still too frequently, since.  

Given the history, we can expect more such tragic experiences; nothing has or is anticipated to change.  My sympathy is for those kids who may not have known or who underestimated the perils that driving presents: the results and consequences of a mistake, at any moment, all of a sudden. We call it “kinetic vulnerability.” 

Isaac Newton wasn’t just measuring the predictable phenomena of gravity, mass and motion, it applies to vehicle trajectory. The iceberg did not hit the Titanic. When driving, we are vulnerable to physics, geometry and behavior. What might go wrong? The car can’t crash itself.

Yet car crashes are the leading cause of violence on the planet.

The U.S. keeps meticulous track of all the reported crashes, police, insurance and hospital reports. According to the National Safety Council (www.nsc.org), the consequences are evidenced by gruesomely unconscionable statistics, topping 40,000 fatal injuries in 2017, and 4.6 million medically consulted injuries (however severe). Motor vehicle injury costs an estimated $416.2 billion, and that’s not counting the purchase prices of cars, insurances, repairs, maintenance and towing fees. (According to their website, the National Safety Council, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, figures are not comparable to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures. NSC counts both traffic and non-traffic deaths that occur within a year of the accident, while NHTSA counts only traffic deaths that occur within 30 days.) However, even these numbers don’t come close to reflecting clearly the emotional distresses and the monumental life changes these losses have created.

Unfortunately, the sadness and grief, over time, have not made for improvements that would better our and others’ lives. The laws and courts, government regulations and technological improvements have not made this go away. A person wanting to get a license to cut hair must go through a much more thorough and comprehensive training, testing, evaluation and registration process than required of our kids to drive. Likewise for pilots and surgeons, electricians and those who work in commercial kitchens; some professions and trades require periodic updates and evaluations. Not so for driving.

Traffic safety is generally measured by the frequency and severity of crashes. The U. S. stats show that nearly every driver at some time has an insurance claim. But driving seems safe enough, doesn’t it?

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control study (yes, car crashes are considered a health problem, disease) showed that of the dozen most “economically proud” countries around the world, the U.S. is the worst in traffic safety. Those other countries have instituted and promoted governmental, social and cultural improvements in education, training, evaluation and the social understanding and perspectives and have significantly reduced the carnage. Enforcement is a deterrent factor, not the major thrust of their promotions. Getting your license in Germany, Scandinavia, Australia or those other countries takes a more complete understanding of the job of driving. Yes, it is more expensive, but what is it worth?

The graduated licensing requirements that Connecticut passed several years ago for teen drivers under 18 said that 50 hours of parent-supervised driving experience would reduce the teen crash rate. There are no checks on the quantity or quality of the parental supervision. (Few parents would qualify to teach the piano, or electrical circuitry to their kids, but parents are considered to know enough about driving to be expert teachers.) Of the adults I’ve questioned, most consider themselves to be expert drivers.  However, I call it “Delusions of Adequacy.” There is no “superior driver” designation on our licenses, of course.

Happily, Connecticut does provide a state Department of Transportation grant-sponsored single day traffic safety presentation and program at about 60 high schools each year. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

Connecticut could also, unilaterally, come up with social and general media programs, with ongoing training and testing for not only the teen and novice drivers, but also focusing social awareness on this pervasive and dangerous situation for all of us on the roads. Improvement costs will be less than present consequent expenses. Our roads are filled with drivers who only passed that same single license test (for some, decades ago) and perhaps thought that was good enough.

But the children are our future drivers for a near-lifetime of driving, hopefully without a crash, until their kids take their keys away. Not, sadly, for these few.

Bob Green is the director of Survive the Drive, a not-for-profit educational and training resource. See www.survivethedrive.org or call him at 860-435-1054.