Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Side-Benefit of Crawling Traffic?

In Virginia, traffic deaths reached an historic low in 2009, declining to 750, the least highway fatalities in the Commonwealth since 1966, when records started being kept. While 750 is still too many, it's a big improvement from over 1000 in 2007.

It's also a remarkable figure because the number of drivers and miles driven has obviously increased significantly since 1966!

So why has this happened? A cynic--like us--would say it's because no one in Virginia can now drive fast enough to cause a fatal accident! And, there is some truth in that.

More likely, however, is the improvement in safety design of both cars and highways, and increased seat belt usage. Although innovations such as air bags, anti-lock brakes, reinforced doors, crumple zones and stability and traction control have clearly helped make driving safer, it is still true that the biggest life savers are old-fashioned seat belts.

If you read reports in the local paper of traffic fatalities, you'll often see that the person(s) who died wasn't wearing a safety harness; many times they are ejected from the car. Those wearing seat belts in the same accidents almost always survive.

Virginia is not unique--2008 had the lowest number of traffic deaths nationally since 1961 (still, an appalling 37,261 fatalities), and traffic fatalities per mile travelled (a more accurate statistical measure given increased driving) have steadily declined over the past 40 years.

Interesting, too, that 2009 marked a record low year for homicides across the nation as well.

There's a lot of speculation about the reasons for both declines (i.e., car accidents and homicides), but one we haven't seen is the possibility that medical advances have simply meant that many more people who would have died before are now saved (albeit in a maimed state).

Anyway, 2009 may have been a bad year economically, but at least it was a good year for avoiding sudden, violent death.

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