How Safe Are Our Roads? Highway safety has improved through better vehicle technology, smarter road designs and reformed behaviors, such as reduced drunken driving. But fatalities are still high: In 2008, more than 37,000 people were killed in crashes involving motor vehicles. This week, as the holiday travel season begins, NPR will explore these issues.
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Series Overview: How Safe Are Our Roads?

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Series Overview: How Safe Are Our Roads?

Series Overview: How Safe Are Our Roads?

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This week, the lure of a turkey feast will prompt more than 33 million of us to drive at least 50 miles to celebrate Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, car accidents will claim the lives of hundreds of people during the four-day holiday period. Throughout this week, National Public Radio will be broadcasting reports on highway safety and efforts being made to reduce the number of fatalities.

NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax is here with a preview of the On the Road to Safety series. Welcome back, Marilyn.


HANSEN: First, the big question: Are roads getting safer or more dangerous?

GEEWAX: The fatality rate is absolutely lower than when you and I were children. In 1969, for example, for every 100 million miles that Americans drove, five people would die in accidents. Today that's down to 1.2.

So, we've seen dramatic improvements and a lot of that is from airbags, seatbelts, better brakes, higher quality tires, and we just have better passenger cars. They don't crumple the way they used to. And we've built better roads. And we've changed attitudes about buckling up and about drinking and driving.

But we still have an appalling slaughter out there on our roads. Last year, 37,000 people died on our roads. It's outrageous. And you'd think that people would be pushing for change. But, you know, it's not easy to make significant gains in safety because it would require all of us to change our priorities.

Just take the example of the speed limit. We know that going 55 miles an hour is a lot safer, but we're in a hurry. So, states have raised the speed limits to 65, even higher than that in some places. And we don't like higher taxes, so we don't particularly want to pay for safer roads and bridges. So the only way that we would get significant gains in safety is if we made some really tough choices.

HANSEN: What did NPR reporters uncover when they examined safety issues around the country?

GEEWAX: This issue of technology, we found real reasons for optimism because our cars are becoming a lot more sophisticated. In the future we'll be benefiting from electronics that will prevent skidding and rollovers. And we've got more gadgets coming, like cameras, radar, infrared sensors to help us avoid hitting things.

And there's another bit of good news coming out of Detroit - the automakers are taking aging drivers a little more seriously. And they're looking at things like special windshields that would help make it easier for older drivers to see stop signs and pedestrians in front of them.

HANSEN: Do you think all this new technology is ushering in a golden age of safety?

GEEWAX: Not necessarily, of course, because every time you have advances in technologies, there's also things that can bring us new dangers. So we've got cell phones and texting while you drive are really causing big problems with distracted drivers. I think we'll probably have to have a lot tougher laws to crack down on those practices before we eliminate that danger.

HANSEN: What else do you think drivers and passengers should be concerned about?

GEEWAX: Lots of longstanding old-fashioned problems still out there. Rural roads are a big issue. We've got an interesting report coming about how dangerous rural roads are. We've got a mix of trucks, RVs, school buses, passenger cars all two-lane roads that typically have high speed limits. So that's very dangerous.

And then no one has ever figured out any way to make teenage boys slow down. And we've got problems with - another demographic problem is aging baby boomers. As more and more baby boomers enter their 60s and into their 70s, we'll be seeing more problems with slower flexes and just diminishing driving skills. And state budgets are a problem. We've got - this recession has really drained the coffers, so we've got problems ahead with road improvements.

So, when we look out on where are we with highway safety, I think the outlook seems pretty mixed right now. And we're hoping that listeners will come along with us as we take a tour of our nation's highways.

HANSEN: There is more about the On the Road to Safety series at

Marilyn Geewax is NPR's senior business editor. Thanks a lot, Marilyn.

GEEWAX: You're welcome, Liane.

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