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Highway Safety Initiatives

Cutting Fatalities by 50 Percent Over 20 Years

Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

ne of law enforcement’s cardinal responsibilities always has been to reduce highway crashes and the heartbreaking deaths and dreadful injuries they cause. To that end, the IACP joined the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in 2008 by adopting an IACP Highway Safety Committee resolution supporting a national highway safety goal of halving fatalities over the next two decades—essentially reducing fatalities by 1,000 per year.1

Is this goal reasonable and achievable? Naysayers indicate that over the past two decades (1989–2008), traffic fatalities in the United States declined only 18 percent, sparing 8,321 lives2 and that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death of people of every age between 3 and 34.3 They also suggest that the historic declines in fatalities over the past several years are attributable to less travel in this dire economy. However, while Americans have driven somewhat less, the reductions in vehicle miles traveled do not alone account for the significant drop in fatalities.4 For example, although nearly three in every five fatalities occur in rural areas, mileage probably has not dropped much in these areas because residents still need to drive to work, shop, receive medical care, and complete other essential activities.

If this ambitious new goal were achieved during the next two decades (2009–2028), fatalities would decline 50 percent from the 37,261 recorded in 2008:5 18,631 lives would be spared. Put another way, fatalities would decrease from an average of 102 per day in 2008, to 51 per day in 2028. The following are means by which the national highway safety goal could be reached; however, this list is not intended to be all-inclusive.

Seat Belt Use. Seat belt use has saved more lives than any other vehicle safety program.6 Overall seat belt usage increased from about 11 percent in 1979–82,7 to 84 percent in 20098—the highest rate in U.S. history. As impressive as this reality is, 2,970 more lives might be saved annually if all states permitted primary enforcement of seat belt statutes; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that each percentage point increase in the national seat belt usage rate translates into nearly 270 lives spared.9 Seat belt use in the District of Columbia and in the 30 states that allow primary enforcement is 11 percentage points higher than it is in those 19 states permitting only secondary enforcement, as well as in New Hampshire that stands alone with no adult seat belt use requirement. 10 Enacting primary enforcement laws in those 20 states would close this gap and, in turn, would noticeably contribute to the achievement of the new highway safety goal.

With 13 states in 2007 attaining an overall seat belt use rate in excess of 90 percent,11 it will become increasingly difficult to continue to raise the usage rate, for those who fail to buckle up will be the hardcore violators. However, almost two-thirds of passenger vehicle occupants killed in nighttime crashes in 2005 were unrestrained, compared to just fewer than half in daytime collisions.12 Nighttime seat belt enforcement admittedly presents a challenge, but it also yields an opportunity to save more lives. For example, an average of 64 Washington state law enforcement agencies partnered in a modified Click It or Ticket program in 2007–08 that reduced nighttime deaths of vehicle occupants by 21 percent (compared to 1998–2002) and increased seat belt use in fatal crashes from 31 percent to 46 percent during the same periods.13

Electronic Stability Control (ESC) Systems. ESC systems, which “use automatic computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to assist the driver in maintaining control in critical driving situations in which the vehicle is beginning to lose directional stability at the rear wheels (spin out) or directional control at the front wheels (plow out),”14 hold real promise in significantly reducing rollover crashes and in literally saving thousands of lives annually. NHTSA predicts that the full implementation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 126—requiring the installation of ESC systems by Model Year 2012 in 100 percent of passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, and buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less—will spare 5,300 to 9,600 lives annually, preventing between 42 percent and 55 percent of the more than 10,000 deaths each year resulting from rollover crashes alone.15

Cable Barriers. Over the past decade, many states have installed cable barrier systems, which have substantially reduced fatalities from cross-median crashes and from rollover collisions in medians. Cable median barriers tend to be more forgiving and considerably less expensive than traditional concrete and guardrail median barriers; by absorbing the impact, vehicles tend not to ricochet into traffic, preventing thereby secondary collisions. North Carolina pioneered this lifesaving strategy in 1998 and witnessed a 95 percent reduction in cross-median fatalities. Utah reported no crossover fatalities in a nine-mile test area compared to twelve during the previous two years. Missouri installed 179 miles of median cable barriers on I-70; while it recorded 24 fatal median crossover crashes in 2002, only 2 occurred in 2005 in those areas where these barriers had been installed.16 The state of Washington has installed more than 181 miles of cable median barrier on state highways and reported a 59 percent reduction in fatal and serious injury collisions.17

Impaired Driving. Law enforcement, with NHTSA’s support and in conjunction with organizations such as MADD (Mothers against Drunk Driving), has made tremendous inroads toward reducing impaired driving fatalities; for example, consider that alcohol impairment was involved in 57 percent of the 50,984 fatalities in 196618 compared to 32 percent of the 37,261 deaths in 2008.19 However, while about the same number of passenger vehicle occupants were killed in 2005 during the day as at night (15,878 versus 15,294), 3.3 times more were killed in nighttime crashes involving alcohol.20 Perhaps, agencies should consider more targeted approaches to saving additional lives: for example, NHTSA has suggested employing sobriety checkpoints between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. to leverage their deterrent value, complemented by saturation or roving patrols between 9:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. when approximately half of all alcohol-impaired fatalities occur.21 Today there are 1,268 more people alive because alcohol-impaired driving fatalities (fatalities in crashes involving drivers or motorcycle riders with blood alcohol concentrations [BACs] of .08 grams per deciliter [g/dL] or greater) declined in 2008 by almost 10 percent.22

Motorcycles. Motorcycle fatalities continued to be problematic in 2008, increasing for the 11th consecutive year and accounting for 14 percent of the total fatalities.23 In 2008, 30 percent of all fatally injured motorcycle riders had BACs of .08 g/dL or above, and the percentage of those with BACs of .08 g/dL or above once again was highest among fatally injured motorcycle riders in two age groups—40–44 and 45–49—both at 41 percent. More than two of every five motorcycle riders killed in each of the past three years were not wearing helmets at the time of the crash. The IACP has supported all-rider motorcycle helmet legislation and enforcement,24 recognizing NHTSA’s estimate that 823 more lives could have been spared in 2008 if all motorcyclists had been wearing approved helmets.


Based on the foregoing, the national highway safety goal of halving fatalities over the next two decades clearly is both reasonable and achievable. Law enforcement officers understand more than most that the lives wasted in traffic crashes are far more than mere numbers; each fatality is a loss to someone: a parent, a child, a sibling, a teacher, a neighbor, a friend, or even a partner. Flesh and blood will continue to inspire and enhance law enforcement’s commitment to saving lives, thereby reaching the national highway safety goal. ■


1IACP Resolution, “New Highway Safety Goal,” 2008, (accessed December 10, 2009).
2NHTSA, Early Assessment of 1999 Crashes, Injuries, and Fatalities, (accessed February 18, 2010).
3“Overview,” NHTSA, Traffic Safety Facts: 2008 Data, December 2009, DOT HS 811 162, 2, (accessed January 4, 2010).
4“Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities For the First Half (January–June) of 2009,” NHTSA, Traffic Safety Facts, DOT HS 811 207, October 2009, (accessed January 7, 2010).
5“Overview,” NHTSA, Traffic Safety Facts: 2008 Data.
6 Charles J. Kahane, Lives Saved by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Other Vehicle Safety Technologies, 1960-2002: Passenger Cars and Light Trucks: With a Review of 19 FMVSS and Their Effectiveness in Reducing Fatalities, Injuries, and Crashes, NHTSA technical report, DOT HS 809 833, October 2004, 88, (accessed December 10, 2009).
7Ibid., 88.
8“Seat Belt Use in 2009—Overall Results,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, NHTSA, DOT HS 811 100, September 2009, 1, (accessed December 16, 2009).
9NHTSA, 2009 National Communications Plan, March 2009, 3, (accessed December 11, 2009).
10 “Seat Belt Use in 2009—Overall Results,” 3.11 “The Increase in Lives Saved, Injuries Prevented, and Cost Savings if Seat Belt Use Rose to at Least 90 Percent in All States,” Traffic Safety Facts, NHTSA, DOT HS 811 140, May 2009, 2, (accessed December 16, 2009).
12 Cherian Varghese and Umesh Shankar, “Passenger Vehicle Occupant Fatalities by Day and Night—A Contrast,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, NHTSA, DOT HS 810 637, May 2007, 2, (accessed December16, 2009).
13Lowell M. Porter, “Washington States Nighttime Seat Belt Enforcement Project,” paper presented at the Delaware Statewide Highway Safety Conference,Rehoboth, Del., November 19, 2009, (accessed December 16, 2009).
14NHTSA, “Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Electronic Stability Control Systems; Controls and Displays,” 49 CFR 571, 585, April 5, 2007, 1, (accessed December 16, 2009).
15Ibid., 24.
16Wes Johnson, “Lives Saved as Highways Get Cable,” USA Today, July 19, 2006, (accessed December 18, 2009).
17Washington State Department of Transportation, “2009 Cable Median Barrier Report,” December 18, 2009).
18Ricardo Martinez, M.D., Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, speaking before the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Hearing on “Road Rage: Causes and Dangers of Aggressive Driving,” U.S. House of Representatives, July 17, 1997, 105th Cong., 1st sess., (accessed December 22, 200
19“2008 Traffic Safety Annual Assessment—Highlights,” Traffic Safety Facts: Crash Stats, NHTSA, DOT HS 811 172, June 2009, 5, (accessed December 22, 2009).
20Varghese and Shankar, “Passenger Vehicle Occupant Fatalities by Day and Night—A Contrast.”
21IACP Highway Safety Committee, “Midyear Meeting Minutes, June 4–7, 2008,” Branson, Mo., 3–4, (accessed January 7, 2010).
22“2008 Traffic Safety Annual Assessment—Highlights.”
23“Motorcycles,” NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Traffic Safety Facts: 2008 Data, NHTSA, DOT HS 811 159, October 2009, (accessed December 243, 2009).
24IACP Resolution, “Support of Motorcycle Safety Enforcement Initiative,” 2007,; and IACP Resolution, “Motorcycle Safety Enforcement Initiative,” 2009, (accessed December 23, 2009).

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, "Highway Safety Initiatives: Cutting Fatalities by 50 Percent Over 20 Years," The Police Chief 77 (March 2010): 80–82, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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