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Back to Archives | Back to April 2004 Contents 

From the Director

From the Administrator: NHTSA's Highway Safety Priorities

By Otis Cox, Deputy Administrator, NHTSA, Washington, DC

Otis Cox
Otis Cox, Deputy Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
We made significant progress in our efforts to reduce traffic crashes, deaths, and injuries in 2003. Thanks largely to hard work by our law enforcement partners, the United States realized a record high level of occupant protection use of 79 percent. We estimate that this 4-percentage-point increase in safety belt use will result each year in roughly 1,000 fewer fatalities across the country. While laying the groundwork for future fatality reduction through increased use of occupant protection devices, the nation's total number of highway fatalities crept slightly upward. We must renew our efforts to build on our successes and strengthen our areas of weaker performance to speed the reduction of traffic fatalities and crippling, disabling injuries.

With that in mind, I want to share National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's highway safety program development and implementation priorities for 2004 and 2005. These program priorities represent the emphasis areas that are most likely to achieve significant reductions in highway fatalities and injuries over the next 21 months.

Our goal remains firm. We can drive our national traffic fatality rate down to no more than one death per 100 million miles of vehicle travel, and we can get there no later than 2008. It means cutting the death rate by more than one-third, from the 1.51 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2002. To stay on target, we have to cut the death rate to 1.25 or less by 2005. We must accept this challenge, because the ever-increasing annual miles traveled will result in more Americans dying if we simply hold the line at the current rate. For example, if the fatality rate doesn't improve and annual VMT continues to increase as it has in recent years, we will lose about 48,000 lives in 2008. That is 5,000 more than we lost in 2002, and that is unacceptable.

With your support, we can reach our goal, and we know what it takes. We can make headway in 2004, and dramatically accelerate the pace in 2005, if we concentrate on strategies that have the highest potential to move the numbers in the right direction. NHTSA's administrator, Jeffrey W. Runge, M.D., has recently outlined five areas for action that have that potential and are based on research or data analysis or both.

Safety Belt Use

First, let's continue to drive safety belt use up. In 2003 we reached an all-time national high of 79 percent usage. We accomplished this by a coast-to-coast commitment to high-visibility enforcement that embedded "click it or ticket" in the national consciousness. With law enforcement leadership, we are going to continue that commitment throughout the years ahead and push belt use to over 80 percent by 2005. We are also going to continue our support for primary safety belt laws. States that have upgraded to primary laws have enjoyed double-digit increases in use in the first year alone. With Delaware and Illinois joining the ranks of primary belt law states in 2003, primary laws protect nearly 60 percent of Americans. When we get the rest of the states on board, we will save about 1,400 lives each year.

Impaired Driving

Second, let's get impaired drivers off the road. We have set in motion a national campaign of sustained enforcement of impaired-driving violations, including sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, punctuated by periodic high-intensity crackdowns and backed up by heavy public awareness campaigns stressing the message "You drink and drive, you lose." The public is starting to get the message.

We will continue this unrelenting, well-advertised enforcement campaign in the years ahead. But we are going to do more than that. We are going to work with the states and many other partners to strengthen the capability of our adjudicatory system to address and combat the crime of driving while impaired (DWI). Specifically, we must work to provide technical training and professional assistance to prosecutors that handle DWI cases or seek to establish prosecutor positions dedicated to prosecuting DWI cases.

We also want to ensure the judiciary has the tools and knowledge it needs to fairly, effectively, and consistently hear and dispose of DWI cases. This includes information about sentencing and the capability to monitor offenders to ensure that sentences are adhered to fully and completely, including the establishment of DWI courts where feasible and appropriate. And beyond that, we must continue to reach out to the entire medical and health care community, to put in place routine alcohol screening and referral to assessment and treatment.

Let's continue to build on our work to break the chain of progression of substance abuse before it takes more lives on our roads. We need your support and involvement in the highly publicized mobilization and crackdown periods in 2004 on occupant protection (May 24–June 6) and impaired driving (August 27–September 12). Collaboratively, we need to do all of these things to force the alcohol-related death rate down to no more than 0.53 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Crash Data

Third, we need your help to do a better job of gathering and reporting the facts we need to manage our programs. The police accident report (PAR) is the first link in a critical system of data collection and analysis. It is the foundation on which data and traffic records systems are built. It is used to determine whether program priorities are as accurate, complete, or timely as needed. How can we respond effectively to changing needs when access to crash data lags a year or more behind the event, or when basic information on contributing factors, such as whether a driver had been drinking, simply isn't collected in over half the cases? This data is used by law enforcement agencies, state highway safety agencies, and many others nationwide to identify problems, allocate resources, and measure the success of programs and enforcement efforts. NHTSA will provide technical leadership, guidance, training, and other resources in working with the states to ensure programs are developed using the best available data and sound analysis, and that plans are developed and implemented to improve state data systems and analysis.

We are committed to continuing efforts to improve the responsiveness of our Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to reduce the fatality reporting lag time from one year to one month. We need your personal leadership to push for similar improvements with state traffic data systems.

Rollover Fatalities

In addition, we must respond to emerging trends in our national vehicle fleet. We see two priorities in this area. The first is to reduce rollover deaths. Rollovers occur in only 3 percent of all crashes but account for one-third of passenger motor vehicle occupant deaths. Here again, data gathered by traffic enforcement officers can provide the first indication of driver error or a vehicle defect.

Obviously, motor vehicle manufacturers have a crucial role to play here, especially in improving the safety performance of vehicles. But you can and must contribute as well. Our priority of increasing belt use will also help here, as fully 75 percent of the vehicle occupants killed in rollover crashes are unbuckled.

Vehicle Compatibility

The other priority relating to the fleet is to improve vehicle compatibility. It is clearly a challenge to design in-vehicle systems that will adequately protect the occupants of a small car when struck by a big car. But there are steps we can take. Our proposed self-protection, or side-impact rule, will produce significant safety benefits. However, strict enforcement of unsafe driving violations such as following too closely, speeding, and other unsafe maneuvers that increase the probability of crash involvement will aid in mitigating this problem

These, then, are our highway safety program development and implementation priorities for 2004 and beyond:

  • Higher belt use

  • Less impaired driving

  • Improved access to better data

  • Fewer rollover deaths

  • Improved vehicle compatibility

It is your leadership and continued commitment in working with us that will determine how much progress we achieve, particularly in the first three areas.

Finally, we at NHTSA are keenly aware of the role law enforcement has in the success of highway safety programs. Enforcement is essential to ensure drivers obey our traffic laws, not just through writing tickets but also through the creation of a deterrence effect that will ensure driver conformance is achieved. The effectiveness of this deterrence depends primarily on two crucial factors: the driving behavior must be definable and detectable; and there must be a perceived risk of apprehension. During these times of budget hardships and limited enforcement resources, we must work together to ensure that there exists a nontrivial chance of being apprehended when engaging in unsafe behaviors. This is most easily accomplished through an effective and efficiently managed highway safety program. Identifying NHTSA's priority programs should provide a clear, definable message of acceptable driver behavior. Through our continued strong partnerships with the law enforcement community, we will reduce fatalities and injuries in the future.


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 4, April 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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