I started practicing personal injury law in 1971, and have represented many thousands of people who were injured in car wrecks. Progress in auto accident safety in these past 40 years has been slow but steady, and from my perspective the difference in degree of injuries in a typical automobile collision today is dramatically different than when I started practicing.
In the old days we saw many people who were badly injured or disfigured by being thrown into the windshield in a collision, or being tossed into sharp objects on the dashboard, such as radio dials. Now, with seat belts, shoulder harnesses, air bags in front and on the side, we just don’t see those injuries except in the most severe collisions.
The interiors of automobiles are much safer now also. The hard-edged metal dashboard controls from the 1970′s have been replaced by buttons flush with the dashboard or by rounded dials made of rubber. The dashboards are made of a softer material now. So even if people are not wearing seat belts they are less likely to be injured by hitting sharp objects inside the vehicle.
Getting to this point took a lot of work by the federal government and by trial lawyers. Products liability lawsuits against auto manufacturers for improper or unsafe design prompted those manufacturers to change the design of their vehicles, and to make those vehicles much safer today.
The decrease in auto deaths was reported last week by the Dallas Morning News recently. Here are excerpts from that article:
The Transportation Department estimated Friday that 32,788 people were killed on U.S. roads in 2010, a decrease of about 3 percent from 2009. It’s the fewest number of deaths since 1949 – during the presidency of Harry Truman – when more than 30,000 people were killed.
“Too many of our friends and neighbors are killed in preventable roadway tragedies every day,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We will continue doing everything possible to make cars safer, increase seat belt use, put a stop to drunk driving and distracted driving and encourage drivers to put safety first.”
The numbers are projections for 2010. The government expects to release final data on deaths and injuries, including specific state-by-state totals, later this year.
Separately, the rate of deaths per 100 million miles traveled is estimated to have hit a record low of 1.09 in 2010, the lowest since 1949. The previous record was in 2009, which had a rate of 1.13 deaths per 100 million miles traveled.
“It’s a really good sign that fatalities are down despite the fact that (vehicle miles traveled) is up,” said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Harsha said fewer people were dying because of a number of factors related to vehicle technologies, safer driving and road designs.
Safety equipment such as side air bags that guard the head and midsection in a crash and anti-rollover technology like electronic stability control are becoming standard equipment on new cars and trucks.
Many states have been more vigilant on drunken driving. Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities fell more than 7 percent in 2009 from the previous year.
And seat belt use, the most basic defense in a crash, reached an all-time high of 84 percent in 2009. Several states have allowed police to stop a vehicle for failure to wear a seat belt even if the officer doesn’t detect another driving violation like speeding.