To Prevent Crashes, a New Push to Improve Driver Behavior ; Methods That Reduced Road Fatalities Overseas Would Work in US, Advocates Say

Article excerpt

Despite the human and financial toll of traffic fatalities annually in the United States - 43,000 deaths and 2.7 million injuries at a cost of about $230 billion - such accidents are often viewed as an inevitable, if tragic, byproduct of driving. Now a small but growing number of safety advocates and transportation researchers want to change that perception, partly by borrowing proven strategies from Europe and Australia. The goal, they say, is to reduce the number of traffic deaths - not by improving cars to limit the severity of crashes, but by targeting human behaviors that trigger collisions in the first place.

That strategy has worked well in the Netherlands, where over the past three decades, the annual number of traffic fatalities has declined by 75 percent from 3,200 to 800. Today, that country has one of the lowest per capita traffic fatality rates in the world.

"The perspective in our society is that quite some proportion of all car crashes are preventable," says Fred Wegman, director of the Netherlands Institute for Road Safety Research, "and there is no need to accept the death toll."

Mr. Wegman visited Washington, D.C., last month for the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board as an independent adviser to the US government. Improving traffic safety is not easy, he says. "You are famously dependent on how the population perceives the problem, and whether you can interest politicians to take action."

Some methods used by the Netherlands to reduce road fatalities include changing road design to limit vehicle speeds, expanding automated enforcement and sobriety testing, and prohibiting the use of electronic devices while driving.

"Since the 1960s, safety campaigns in this country have focused predominantly on crash mitigation, such as seat belts and air bags," says Bob Chauncey, director of a new "traffic justice" initiative for the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, a nonprofit group in Bethesda, Md. "With the exception of MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving], we don't look at the root cause of the crash."

The US approach to road safety is limited in scope, says David Willis, a senior research scientist at the Texas Transportation Institute in College Station. Forty percent of all fatal crashes in the United States are due to speeding, he says. "But unlike almost every other civilized society in the world, we don't focus on driver behavior - we focus on vehicle design."

In the Netherlands, says Mr. Wegman, speed limits are very low: 25 m.p.h. in the city, and 60 m.p.h. on the freeway. Dutch roads are also designed to encourage safe driving. Traffic-calming strategies include extensive bicycle and pedestrian facilities, narrow streets with medians, and roundabouts instead of intersections with traffic signals. …

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