Who is responsible for highway safety?

Highways were somewhat safer last year — unless you were in a heavy-duty truck.

According to an August 10 announcement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the overall fatality rate on the nation's highways was the lowest since the agency began keeping records 29 years ago.

Norman Mineta, Transportation Secretary, declared “America's roads and highways are safer than ever. The decreasing number of traffic fatalities and record low death rate on our roads shows that we are headed down the right road — one that leads to a safer America.”

Our question is: Why? To what should we attribute the improvements in highway safety?

As one might imagine, the head of DOT (of which NHTSA is a part) gave some of the credit to tighter safety regulations. But before mentioning rules and regs, he pointed to two related efforts: campaigns that encourage drivers and passengers to use safety belts, along with programs designed to reduce the number of drivers who operate motor vehicles while intoxicated.

These types of campaigns are not new, but their intensity has increased in recent years. For example, slogans such as “Click it or ticket” can promote the increased use of seat belts if they are not just empty slogans. To put some teeth in those words, special monies are being allocated to fund brief but tightly focused enforcement campaigns in places where compliance is low. Law enforcement officers, some brought in from outside the immediate area, write a flurry of tickets to those who choose not to take this minimal step to protect themselves.

If we are serious about reducing the tragedies that occur daily on our highways, we as a nation need to do a better job taking individual responsibility for our own safety. Efforts to increase seat belt usage or to decrease drunken driving help us to do just that.

For years, regulators have given vehicle manufacturers major responsibility for keeping us safe. During that time, NHTSA developed regulation after regulation that required truck and trailer designers to minimize damage caused by the laws of physics. Airbags, shoulder harnesses, engineered crumple zones, and improved fuel system integrity are some of the ways today's motor vehicles have given their occupants a better chance of surviving severe collisions. Requirements such as conspicuity tape on trailers and center, high-mounted stop lamps on cars have helped make vehicles more visible and accidents more avoidable.

The stats that NHTSA released this month leave little doubt that trucks today are significantly safer than their predecessors. The fatality rate for large truck crashes has been cut almost in half in the past 15 years, according to figures compiled by the National Center for Statistics & Analysis.

But improvements in highway safety are beginning to slow. The 146-page document, available through www.NHTSA.gov, contains a graph that tracks highway safety over the past 15 years. The graph shows substantial improvements in truck safety in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Improvements, however, have been slowing to a trickle in the past few years. For the first time since 1997, the number of fatalities in crashes of large trucks actually increased — edging up 1%. Furthermore, those inside the truck at the time of the accident died 5% more often last year than in 2002.

Vehicle manufacturers need to continuously improve product safety, but it strikes us that the greatest opportunity to reduce the death toll is now elsewhere. After all, who is more responsible for an accident: the manufacturer of the truck or the person who drives it? The manufacturer of the trailer or the person who overloads it? The truck's final-stage manufacturer or the person who fails to maintain it?

In his new book Unsafe on any Highway, Al Hagelthorn points to the intermodal industry as one area where highway safety can be improved. A former engineer at Fruehauf and an active participant in the Society of Automotive Engineers and The Technology and Maintenance Council, Hagelthorn says that Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations do not identify who is responsible for maintenance when container chassis (owned by maritime shipping interests) are tendered to common carriers for shipment over public highways. He contends that, in the absence of clear accountability, some in the intermodal industry are failing to accept maintenance responsibility for many of the 800,000 chassis being operated in the U S. Additional information is available from the publisher, Xlibris Corporation (www.Xlibris.com).

Driver error. Overloaded vehicles. Shoddy maintenance. We can pass regulations and safety standards fairly easily, but how do we legislate personal responsibility?

A couple of years ago, a Texas state trooper was shot to death by a 75-year-old man. The reason: the trooper pulled him over for not wearing a seat belt.

Persuading the public that safety is their job will continue to be been a tough sell. But it's now our best opportunity to stop the bleeding.

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