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Back to Archives | Back to April 2005 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Highway Safety Initiatives:Traffic Safety 101:Motor Vehicle Safety Standards

By Joel Bolton, Lieutenant, Lake Charles Police Department, Lake Charles, Louisiana

he death toll from motor vehicle crashes in 1925 was 17 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. By 1975 that number had been reduced to 3.4; by 2003 it was 1.48 deaths per million vehicle miles.

These dramatic gains are the result of a number of factors, including law enforcement's efforts to educate the public and enforce lifesaving laws. Automotive engineers and federal regulators know the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) with which every car manufacturer must conform and certify compliance are another major influence.

Traffic Safety Standards Arrive
In the mid-1960s, the nation had seen several years of increasing traffic crash fatalities. After congressional hearings on the issue, the Highway Safety Act of 1966 and other legislation established the role of the federal government in motor vehicle safety. This mandate to reduce traffic crashes, deaths, and injuries included establishing motor vehicle safety standards, conducting safety research, and developing a highway safety program for the nation with financial assistance to the states.

One of the witnesses at the congressional hearings was Dr. William Haddon, a public health physician whose research led him to conclude that crash injuries and deaths could be reduced by identifying and addressing what occurred before a crash, during the crash event itself, and after the crash. He examined interactions between and among the vehicle, its occupants, and the roadway environment.

The Haddon Matrixis widely used today as a tool to develop injury prevention strategies. It is a nine-cell matrix that, for example, would help identify precrash countermeasures, such as the removal of unsafe drivers from the road through licensing requirements; crash event variables, such as the proper use of safety belts; and postcrash lifesaving improvements, such as a reduction in the time between the crash event and the medical response.

Dr. Haddon was subsequently appointed to lead the agency that would become the National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA). There, he would put his injury prevention ideas into practice.

Vehicles produced in model year 1968 were the first to hit the market with safety improvements mandated by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The first 20 standards for vehicles included a requirement for safety belts in all seating positions, improved braking, and shatter-resistant windshields.

Standards addressing the highway environment emerged at that time. Improvements included better roadway marking, reflectors, breakaway signs, and guardrails.

Traffic Safety Standards Save Lives
Earlier this year, NHTSA released a review of the effectiveness of the FMVSS, reporting that nearly 329,000 lives have been saved since 1960 because of safety improvements to passenger cars and light trucks. The agency estimated that 24,561 lives were saved in 2002 alone, with more than half of that number (14,570) credited to safety belts.

From 1960 to 2002, safety belts (FMVSS 208) saved more than 168,000 lives. Also a part of FMVSS 208, air bags are credited in the report with saving another 12,074 lives. Child safety seats, part of FMVSS 213, have saved 5,954 young lives, according to the study.
Improvements to vehicle braking systems under FMVSS 105 reduced brake failure and increased crash avoidance, saving more than 13,000 lives. FMVSS 212 addressed the shatter-resistant properties of windshields and saved 6,700 lives. Other standards that contributed to lives saved include energy-absorbing steering assemblies (FMVSS 203/204), improved door locks (FMVSS 206), side door beams (FMVSS 214), and roof crush strength (FMVSS 216).

The agency also looked at the cost these safety mandates have added to the retail price of a new car. The total comes to about $839, most of that for air bag technology.

Traffic Safety Standards Evolve
NHTSA is now in the capable hands of another physician, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, who recently said that we might be seeing a new Haddon's Matrix evolve. In remarks prepared for delivery at at a recent conference, Runge said changes are coming "as technology makes possible what was unimaginable in the 1960s." Among the advances that Runge cited are those that can "mitigate crash forces by precrash sensing, vehicles that communicate with their environment or with other vehicles, and advances in driver assist technologies."

Police leaders play a major role-through public education and aggressive enforcement-in increasing correct use of safety belts and child restraints. We work to reduce the toll of impaired driving through better detection and apprehension. We spend countless hours on radar and red-light violation details. And we investigate the millions of traffic crashes each year, completing reports that provide data that help engineers and regulators save more lives. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 3, April 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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