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Directions in Highway Safety, Spring 2007 Cover Page Download Newsletter pdf
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Spring 2007 | Vol. 10 | No. 1

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Improving Traffic Safety Culture:
The Journey Ahead

J. Peter Kissinger
President and CEO, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety logo

I know that roughly 43,000 Americans are killed each year in traffic crashes, and that traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for children, teens and young adults in the U.S. It is what motivates me and my associates to learn more about what can be done to reduce this public health crisis. The average motorist in this country does not appreciate the full implications of these tragedies.

Over the past several decades, the risks associated with motor vehicle travel have been substantially lowered. But recently, progress has slowed, despite the fact that much research suggests that we could probably cut this toll in half or better if only we would implement a few proven lifesaving countermeasures that we already know about. So, why don't we?

That is the central question that emerged from a workshop the AAA Foundation convened of nationally recognized traffic safety experts to consider a long-term traffic safety research agenda.

The group consensus was that we as individuals and our society on the whole are simply way too willing to accept the toll from these traffic crashes, apparently as an inevitable consequence of the mobility we enjoy.

At the same time, contrast this apparent "complacency" with what has happened since 9/11. Americans have accepted the expenditure of billions of dollars to combat terrorism, and have accepted innumerable inconveniences and intrusions into their privacy that previously would have been considered unacceptable. When we get "outraged" about something, our society can marshal the requisite resolve and resources to make a difference!

Although traffic safety has improved, we're not doing as well as many other countries. Prior to the mid 1960's, the U.S. enjoyed the greatest level of traffic safety in the world by any measure; whereas today, the U.S. has fallen behind most of Western Europe in terms of fatalities per mile driven. Evidence suggests that these countries have achieved-and are still achieving- greater safety gains than the U.S because they are willing to set more ambitious safety performance goals than we are, and because they are willing to do more to achieve them.

The official safety performance goal of the U.S. Department of Transportation is to reduce the motor vehicle fatality rate to one fatality per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2008. The most recent statistics reveal that the U.S. has just seen its first increase in the fatality rate in two decades. We are no longer moving in the "right direction" too slowly-as we had been for the past decade-now, we're moving in the wrong direction. Even if we were to achieve this goal, we would still be writing off roughly 30,000 annual deaths as the socially accepted price of our mobility, and that's before accounting for the projected travel increases.

This provides a stark contrast to the picture in much of Europe and Australia, where traffic injuries, deaths, and rates of both, have dropped substantially over the past decades; where the target is a safe system that minimizes opportunities for crashes to occur and virtually precludes disabling or fatal outcomes by limiting crash severity; and where the measuring stick is the actual number of traffic casualties, rather than a rate that accepts the notion that increases in driving must lead to increases in crashes, injuries and deaths.

To make real progress, we must transform our way of thinking. The AAA Foundation has taken on "traffic safety culture" as a long term research focus area. Working together with GHSA and other traffic safety organizations, we can and will make a difference!