Cars Are Amazingly Safe Today. Drivers, Not So Much.

cars cut road deaths but drivers are still drunkWe talk a lot about how alcohol-related road deaths are less frequent than they used to be.

All in all, there are many fewer road deaths than just there were a few decades ago. About 30,000 people die on the nation’s streets and highways each year nowadays. Back in 1972, when the number peaked, 54,589 people were killed.

Those who have worked hard to fight drunk driving deserve some of the credit. MADD, the Ad Council, ignition interlock technology, legislators and law enforcement have all played a part.

But cars are better too. Drunk drivers are getting more second and third chances than ever, thanks to the marvels of automotive safety technology.

Recently a woman in Colorado Springs flipped her car after turning too fast – a feat in itself, given how hard it is to flip a car with modern suspensions and tires.  She wasn’t hurt at all. The seat belt and air bags did their job. The 2009 US vehicle roof strength standard – which requires a roof to withstand three times the curb weight of the car – proved to be a godsend.

One standard that didn’t hold up was the driver’s standard of behavior. Alcohol was detected, and so she was one of about 4,000 people booked on suspicion of DUI in the U.S. that day.

Making cars safer has been a long and sometimes contentious process, but it’s been relatively straightforward. Improvements like airbags, crumple zones, front disc brakes, traction control and ABS have made crashes rarer, injuries in crashes less severe, and crash deaths fewer as well.

Making drivers safer has been much more difficult. As this history shows, concern about drunk driving went back as far as the 1900s, but real outrage didn’t appear until much later, and drivers didn’t change their habits until after MADD and the federal government began pushing for change, and educational campaigns began altering social attitudes.

So that’s where we are today. We’re able to create a 4,000 pound machine that can flip over and keep a driver safe from harm. But we still have trouble convincing a driver not to operate that machine after drinking.

Colorado requires all drunk drivers to install ignition interlocks after all DUI offenses. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. It’s safety technology after the fact, but it’s still safety technology, and it’s also saved thousands of lives.

So the number of road deaths go down, but they don’t go down to zero. Because we keep improving safety technology. But we’re not sure how to work on drivers.