The New York Times hosted an online debate over the question “Do we tolerate too many traffic deaths?”
Adrian K. Lund:
Compared with the Toyota controversy, there is no clamor for Congressional action calling for tough enforcement against speeding. There is no victims’ advocacy group urging installation of speed controls on all vehicles that could prevent drivers from exceeding the legal limit.
Instead, Congress repealed the national maximum speed limit in 1995. Since then state after state has raised speed limits on many roads, costing thousands of lives. A petition to require controls to cap the top speed of large commercial trucks has languished for three years.
Meanwhile, distracted driving and cellphone use behind the wheel are getting all the attention. With much fanfare, states are enacting bans targeting various aspects of phone use by drivers, especially texting. Yet, there is little evidence that the laws will work.
Behavior like driving under the influence, excessive speed and distracted driving result in needless tragedies, and certain populations suffer a disproportionate burden.
The leading cause of traffic fatalities is the D.U.I. Several decades ago, few Americans questioned the practice of driving after a few drinks, but today the vast majority express support for prevention. Important changes, like cutting the legal blood alcohol content (or concentration) to its current level of .08, imposing a higher minimum drinking age, suspending licenses, adopting zero tolerance laws for underage D.U.I. and setting up sobriety checkpoints, have helped decrease the toll that this problem takes.
J. Peter Kissinger:
Research confirms that a deep-seated culture of complacency exists toward highway safety and provides valuable insights into why.
First, unlike airplane crashes or large oil spills, traffic crashes are not outrage-evoking events. They happen in small numbers, are geographically dispersed and aren’t considered headline-grabbing news. Second, while Americans generally favor health and safety, they often dislike restrictions on personal freedom or comfort.
Third, there is a general apathy to the risks associated with traffic crashes. Most drivers consider themselves above average and substantially “in control” of their likelihood of crashing. Many also have a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude. For example, nearly 80 percent of motorists rated distracted driving as a serious problem, yet more than two-thirds of those same individuals admitted to talking on the cellphone while driving in the past month, and 21 percent even admitted to reading or sending text messages while driving.
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