Upon reading microfilmed copies of the Registers of the 1960s and 1970s, as I have been doing to update our Annals of Iola and Allen County, one is struck by the number of fatal car accidents there were in those decades. It was a rare week when a Register front page failed to report a fatal or serious injury accident involving area drivers and their passengers.
Those tragedies were as frequent across the nation as they were here.
A compilation in the “Highway and Motorway Fact Book” that covered the 40 years from 1957 to 1997 showed that the number of traffic deaths on U.S. highways hit a peak of 55,704 in 1972. That total, by the way, is a couple of thousand more than the U.S. lost in World War I, when trained soldiers were trying to kill each other.
The traffic death toll has been dropping or staying steady since that high point four decades ago, despite dramatic increases in the number of miles driven on U.S. highways every year. It is, after all, the number of fatal accidents which occur for every 100 million miles driven that best tells the traffic safety story.
With rare exceptions, that number has steadily declined. In 1957, when the statistics I gathered began, the death rate was 5.98/100m vehicle miles. While the death toll reached its peak in 1972, the rate for each 100m miles had dropped to 4.4/100m vehicle miles driven. By 1997, the fatality rate had dropped to 1.64 for every 100 million miles driven, even though the accident toll had risen to 41,967.
And the improvement continues. In 2009, the most recent figures available, the highway death toll dropped to 33,808 — a number that included motorcyclists and pedestrians as well as motor vehicle drivers and their passengers. That comes out to 1.13 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The death toll is more than 5,000 below that of 1957, a year in which there were only 647,000,000 vehicle miles traveled, compared to 2,978,000,000 VMT in 2009. The fatal accident rate is now less than 20 percent of the rate in 1957.
The average Joe is a good deal safer going 65 mph on a public highway than he is checking shingle damage on his roof after a hail storm.
WHY ARE HIGHWAYS so much safer today than they were two generations ago? A whole list of “betters” explain it: much better cars, much better tires, much better highways. But look in the mirror and give yourself a big smile — much better drivers, too. Better and smarter.
Maybe drivers ed in the schools, which started in the ’60s, helped. But I give more credit to the aging of the population and a change in the national psyche. Because we live longer, the average age of drivers has increased. Older drivers take fewer chances, tend to drive slower and have fewer accidents — until they get to be 75, and then the trend reverses gradually.
The second century of the automobile has taken some of daring-do out of driving, too. Rubber-burning starts, turns and stops are no longer cool. Not to mention the natural deterrent of budget-breaking repair bills if the car’s body is damaged.
America’s love affair with the car has turned comfy, soft, kinda middle-aged.