Commentary

The Vatican, of all places, this week veered from theological matters to take the road less traveled by issuing its 10 Commandments for good drivers.

The 36-page document, “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road,” leads off with “You shall not kill” and includes everything from road rage to drinking and driving to helping fellow travelers.

“Cars tend to bring out the ‘primitive side’ of human beings, thereby producing rather unpleasant results,” an explanation of the document reads in part.

Nor is this the first time the Vatican has addressed the subject, calling traffic accidents “an epidemic of society in a 2003 “Apostolate of the Road,” found on its website.

The Vatican reportedly urges motorists to obey traffic regulations, drive with a moral sense and to pray when behind the wheel.

While this unusual effort may solicit some snickers, a little divine guidance might be useful.

In the U.S., alone, motor vehicle crashes killed more than 42,000 people and injured 2.9 million others in 6 million crashes in 2001, according to a comprehensive study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

In 2003, vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death for the age group 4-34, ranking third overall in terms of the years of life lost – the number of remaining years the person is expected to have lived – compared with cancer and heart disease, another NHTSA study shows.

While statistics have fallen a bit to more than 31,000 vehicle-crash deaths in 2006, NHTSA reports some 48 million people in the U.S. still don’t regularly use seatbelts when they’re driving.

Such disturbing statistics continue to drive auto makers’ efforts to improve intelligent safety technology, including curtain airbags and automatic restraint systems.

NHTSA conducts vehicle crash tests and rates them on a scale of one to five stars — with five stars the highest score — to help consumers evaluate a vehicle’s ability to withstand a crash and its likelihood of rolling over.

Rollovers are uncommon but deadly. They account for about 10% of all crashes, yet 30% of road fatalities, says Rob Block, vice president-global airbag development for Key Safety Systems at a safety seminar during the recent Ward’s Auto Interiors Show in Detroit.

The main cause of death and injury in rollover accidents is when occupants – often not wearing seatbelts – are fully or partially ejected from a vehicle as it tosses and turns, Block says, noting “field data suggest safety systems focus on protecting the head and chest.”

Humans aren’t well designed as energy-absorbing systems, which is why vehicle airbags are so important in crashes, agrees Robert C. Lange, executive director-vehicle structure and safety integration at General Motors.

Curtain airbags are different from other airbags in that they detonate as a vehicle starts to roll rather than hitting another object, he says. And unlike front and side airbags that inflate and deflate instantly, curtain airbags remain inflated to protect vehicle occupants during a multiple rollover that can last several seconds.

Starting in September, NHTSA will require crash-test data to be included on new-vehicle window stickers. The stickers already provide information about price, fuel economy and equipment, and now crash information will be more accessible at dealer showrooms, as well.

You might call the move inspired.

bmcclellan@wardsauto.com