Gary Cosby Jr./AP
Two people were killed in a two-car accident on Highway 31 in Athens, Ala., in October.
Two people were killed in a two-car accident on Highway 31 in Athens, Ala., in October. Gary Cosby Jr./AP
Traffic fatalities hit a 40-year low last year, partly owing to the recession — less money can mean fewer trips — and safer cars.
Better-designed highways also played a role in reducing those road fatalities. Straightforward safety improvements such as rumble strips warn drivers that they are running onto the shoulder. Caps on the ends of roadside guardrails prevent cars from running up on them and vaulting into the air. Cable guardrails, installed on many divided highways, keep cars from crossing medians.
Safety advocates say that despite all the improvements, however, the road is still a dangerous place.
The Edge Of The Road
Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says that leaving the Interstate Highway System increases the chances for accidents because "you get down to some undivided four-lane highways and two-lane, two-way rural roads," which often means narrow lanes and severe curves.
According to Donaldson, a two-lane rural road is six to eight times more dangerous than an interstate.
"The edge of the road? Littered with roadside hazards — telephone poles, boulders, rocks, trees and sometimes obsolete barrier systems which were well-intentioned 40 years ago, but have remained unchanged in that interval," he says.
And there are other dangers for cars. More than 4,000 people were killed in crashes with trucks last year, 1 out of every 9 traffic fatalities.
Jacqueline Gillian, also with the safety group, warns that number could increase if the truck industry gets its way. It's lobbying Congress to increase the maximum weight for trucks on federal highways from 80,000 pounds to 97,000.
Bigger trucks can be more dangerous, Gillian says.
"In fact, in ... fatal crashes involving a truck and a car, 98 percent of the fatalities are the occupants of the car. That's not rocket science. That's just pure physics. Big is always going to win," she says.
The trucking industry doesn't see it that way. It argues that bigger trucks mean there will be fewer needed to haul freight, especially once the economy picks up.
"Safety will not be harmed," says Dave Osiecki, vice president for safety at the American Trucking Associations. "In fact, safety can be improved because you're reducing the exposure of the trucking industry to the motoring public."
Pedestrians and bikers also want a bigger share of the road. There were more than 4,000 pedestrians killed in traffic crashes last year.
David Goldberg of the group Transportation for America says too many roads were designed with only drivers in mind, lacking even sidewalks, but that's starting to change.
"Many communities, over 100 now, have adopted what's called a 'complete streets' policy where they basically say that if we're going to build a road, if we're going to retrofit one, we're going to make it a complete one. We're going to have the sidewalks going to accommodate people on bicycle, people who are in wheelchairs, people who are using public transportation," he says. "There will be a provision made for everybody from the motorist on."
This Highway Driving Simulator at the Federal Highway Administration's Turner Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va., allows engineers to test how drivers will react to changes in the road such as road signs or different pavement markings.
This Highway Driving Simulator at the Federal Highway Administration's Turner Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va., allows engineers to test how drivers will react to changes in the road such as road signs or different pavement markings. Brian Naylor/NPR
Diagnosing The Problem
Government officials say they're working to make highways safer for all users, but that individual drivers also need to take responsibility.
At the Federal Highway Administration's research center in McLean, Va., a small black Saturn sedan is used as a simulator, designed to record drivers' responses.
"We would like to learn more on how to guide drivers to be aware of their destination, how to navigate it," says Joe Bared, a research engineer at the center.
Ray Krammes, the center's technical director, draws a comparison to the medical profession.
"We're always learning more about what's really causing a given illness and ... how effective various medications are," he says.