Something To Cheer When You Get In Your Car

Fewer highway deaths is one government success story.

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It's trendy to trash the government, look on the dark side and, if you're part of the news media, trumpet everything that's going wrong. But at great personal risk, I'm taking a short break from cynicism.

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Here's some good news that affects nearly every American: The number of people dying in car crashes has fallen to the lowest level since 1949, when the government started collecting data. Figures compiled by the Department of Transportation show that an estimated 32,788 people died in car crashes in 2010, down from 33,808 fatalities in 2009. The plunge in overall deaths is remarkable, because American drivers log nearly three times as many miles as they did in 1970, when the feds began tracking those numbers. Driving is still one of the riskiest things most people do, but this improving safety record is akin to a medical breakthrough that saves thousands of lives per year.

Traffic fatalities peaked in 2005 at nearly 43,000, which is equivalent to a packed 747 crashing about once every four days and killing everybody on board. In 2006 and 2007, the number started to drift down, then it plunged by more than 9 percent each year in 2008 and 2009. The 2010 drop is a 3 percent decline from the previous year. One explanation might be that people drove less during the recession, but that's not it: The fatality rate has also plunged, from 1.32 deaths per 100 million VMTs (vehicle-miles traveled) in 2005 to 0.97 deaths in 2010. So driving is getting safer no matter how many cars are on the road.

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Sorry Tea Partiers, but this is one quality-of-life improvement that's not due to the inherent wisdom of hearty individuals left to act as they wish. It's hard to isolate exact cause-and-effect relationships, but safer roads are largely the result of Big Government encouraging—or requiring—people to drive more safely. Lower speed limits directly correlate with fewer deaths. So do mandatory seat-belt laws enforced by obnoxious cops writing tickets based on choices you make (or choose not to make) in the privacy of your own car. Same for tougher laws against drunk driving and the use of cell phones while driving, enhanced by annoying public-service announcements reminding you how to behave.

Better safety systems also have a lot to do with falling fatalities, but those, too, get a boost from government nannies. The auto industry has come up with some terrific safety equipment, such as side-curtain air bags that protect people's heads in a crash, stability-control systems that help a car stay on the road in a skid, and rollover sensors that prevent high-sitting SUVs from tipping over. But car buyers are notoriously fickle about paying extra for safety gear, often choosing to spend their money instead on niceties like heated seats or a sunroof. Consumers often shun safety systems until the government makes them mandatory.

For more than a decade, Washington has required all new cars to have to have two frontal air bags, on the driver and passenger side. That has helped save lives and contributed to the falling death rate. But there are ongoing battles between automakers and the government over requiring other systems on cars, since they make cars more expensive and, in theory at least, could depress sales. The feds win some and lose some. By later this year, nearly all new passenger cars will be required to have stability control, which ought to be another boost for safety. Another proposal may require side air bags or other systems able to prevent passengers from being thrown from the vehicle in a rollover. But new safety standards like these usually come long after the technology has become available and proven. People die as a result.

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Some people do willingly pay extra for safety systems, and it's also possible that people are driving more safely simply because they want to. Or denser traffic could be slowing travel speeds and lowering fatalities. So the normal functioning of supply-and-demand and even some inadvertent factors could be part or the reason fatality rates are falling. But given the way some hotheads drive, it seems foolish to put much faith in the humanistic impulses of the driving public.

A drop in highways deaths is one of those tacit societal improvements that's measurable largely by what does not happen. Compared to 2005 levels, for example, about 10,000 Americans did not die abrupt, horrifying deaths in 2010, and many thousands more escaped paralysis, amputation, disfigurement, or other permanent injury. It's impossible to know who was spared. It may have been a member of your family or mine, a child, or a grandparent. The important thing isn't to speculate on tragedy averted, but to recognize progress and acknowledge how it happens.

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In this case, the government is helping improve the lives of its citizens. That doesn't excuse bone-headed blundering over bank bailouts, fiscal policies, needless debt, corporate giveaways, or corrupt federal boondoggles. Government does need reform, at many levels. But it's worth a break in the gloom to appreciate something gone right. Cynicism will always welcome you back.

Twitter: @rickjnewman