By Sarah Goodyear, December 11, 2013
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn points to a chart showing a
large increase in traffic fatalities at the end of 2012 in Burlington,
Traffic deaths in the United States have fallen nearly 35 percent over
the past 30 years. That’s great news. But the nation’s roads still claim
a terrible number of lives – 34,000 people in 2012 alone.
And a new study finds that many of those deaths could have been
prevented if more states had laws aimed at making driving safer,
including those targeting drunk driving.
According to a new paper published in the journal Public Health,
the states with the toughest driving laws saw an average 14.5 percent
decrease in traffic fatalities compared to those with the most relaxed
The senior author of the paper was Diana Silver of the NYU Steinhardt
School. Along with her colleagues, Silver looked at the effects of 27
different traffic laws intended to change individual motorists’
behavior. Those laws included: a wide variety of alcohol restrictions
and penalties; bans on texting and cell phone use when driving;
graduated licenses for younger drivers; and seatbelt and child restraint
Silver says that she and her colleagues were interested in delving into
the effects of a system where certain types of dangerous motorist
behaviors are illegal in one state, but perfectly legal in the next
The period the researchers studied, 1980 to 2010, was one of dramatic
change, in which some states adopted a wide range of traffic laws while
others resisted, leading to a significant disparity between the most
regulated driving environments and the least. In 1980, on average,
states had adopted 7.7 percent of the 27 laws in question. By 2010, that
average number had soared to 59 percent.
But the gap between the top quartile of states and the bottom quartile
has also widened, from a difference of 8 percent to a difference of 30
percent. (States in the top quartile in 2010 were Alabama, Alaska,
California, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island,
Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin. In the bottom quartile are Hawaii,
Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio,
Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming.)
That disparity in legislation manifests in the real world, Silver's
research suggests, in preventable deaths. States that implemented a
greater number of “evidence-based policies” have seen “significantly
lower than expected fatality rates for all age groups.” The corollary of
that finding, of course, is that states that don’t restrict dangerous driving behavior to the same extent see more traffic fatalities.
Strict regulations on texting, or blood alcohol content, or graduated
licenses, are sometimes opposed as intrusions on personal freedom. But
Silver says that “nanny state” arguments commonly leveled against some
other public health regulations don’t really make sense when applied to
“People driving hit other people,” she says. “They are, in turn, hit by
others. They have other people in those cars who don’t always have a
choice to be there. That seems slightly different than arguing over the
size of soda cups. Getting it wrong means that there are such egregious
consequences. There are fatalities.” This public health problem, Silver
says, “doesn’t have a long period of morbidity,” like elevated blood
sugar. “This goes right to mortality.”
Silver's research suggests that regulations against risky driving
behavior aren’t just government meddling—they save real people’s lives,
and prevent immeasurable pain and suffering. States that refuse to pass
them are missing a chance to improve the public health outcomes of their
citizens in a measurable, dramatic way.
“Not every single death may be 100 percent preventable,” says Silver.
“But many of them are.” Which leaves the question: why would any state
fail to try?