Commentary

Forty years ago, the U.S. had the best traffic-safety record of any country. Today, despite enacting the most stringent safety regulations in the world, we’ve dropped to 10th or 16th place, depending how you measure. What’s going on?

Every year, almost like clockwork, 42,000 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. Several million more are injured, many of them badly. Our reaction to this problem is to write even more regulations. It’s not working.

Today, the U.S. has mandatory seatbelts and airbags. We crash-test cars from the front and off-set front, from both sides and the rear. We crash-test them at higher speeds than the law requires because safety advocates made sure that’s the defacto law. Auto makers must publish how many “stars” their cars get in these crashes to get the public focused on safety. And right now, there’s a big push to improve roof-crush safety. None of this will have much effect.

Take the roof-crush standard. Safety advocates successfully forced the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. to double the standard. Enormous technical efforts and scientific studies were thrown at this issue, which will end up making vehicles heavier and costlier.

Safety advocates argue that rollovers account for only 3% of accidents, but nearly 25% of fatalities, about 10,000 a year. Yet, when you dive into the details, you find the vast majority of those killed in rollovers were ejected from the vehicle because they were not wearing a seatbelt. NHTSA’s own analysis shows the new roof-crush standard might, maybe, possibly, hopefully save 476 lives a year.

The big difference between the U.S. and countries that have a better safety record (Western Europe and Japan) is they have stringent seatbelt laws. They force people to buckle up. Just as importantly, they have far fewer lawsuits against auto makers.

Let’s face it, if you can pin the blame for a traffic fatality on an auto maker, you can make a lot of money in the U.S. It’s not hard to swing a jury to favor a deceased plaintiff when their bereaved family is weeping in the courtroom, especially when the other side is a big corporation represented by company lawyers. But if you sue the driver at fault for not wearing a seatbelt (or being drunk, asleep, careless or high), well, there’s not much money in that.

The result is the U.S. is stuck with a system that regularly enacts stricter safety regulations than anywhere else in the world at enormous cost, even though that system makes pitifully slow progress in reducing traffic fatalities and injuries.

We pretend to protect the citizenry with stricter laws and multi-million dollar lawsuits, while other countries produce better results without going through this entire charade. Yes, a charade. With tens of thousands of lives at stake every year, I feel comfortable calling it what it is.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and Speed Channel.