Road Management & Engineering Journal
Road Management & Engineering Journal
November, 1999
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Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety Release Results of Harris Poll of Public Opinion on Highway Safety

(This article is reproduced, with permission, from the website of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety at http://www.saferoads.org. This is a reprinting of their press release entitled "Harris Poll Finds Overwhelming Public Support for Revamping Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, Improving Intersection Safety, and More Frequently Testing Nation's Youngest and Oldest Drivers.")

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Monday, September 27, 1999) --- The American public overwhelmingly favors an overhaul of federal motor vehicle safety standards, stepped up attention to intersection safety, and more frequent license testing for the nation's youngest and oldest drivers, according to a new Louis Harris poll released today.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates), an alliance of consumer, safety and insurance organizations founded in 1989, commissioned Harris to conduct the independent survey. In conjunction with the release of the Harris survey, Advocates issued a report called "Stuck in Neutral: Recommendations for Shifting the Highway and Auto Safety Agenda into High Gear" that provides more than 90 remedies to dramatically reduce death and injury on the nation's highways in the 21st century.

Among the key findings of the Harris poll were:

"It appears that the American people are way out in front of most politicians when it comes to highway and auto safety," said Judith Lee Stone, President of Advocates. "It is time for our political leadership to catch up with our nation's consumers on this issue."

"The American people's appetite for strong rule-setting in consumer matters is high," said pollster Harris. "People reject turning over this function to the state and localities in its entirely."

Highway crashes are the number one cause of death of Americans under age 30. Since 1982, while alcohol-related traffic deaths have dropped by 37% (from 25,100 in 1982 to 15,900 in 1998), NON-alcohol-related highway fatalities have increased by 36% (from nearly 18, 800 in 1982 to 25,500 in 1998)

In 1990, nearly 44,500 people were killed in highway crashes. By 1998, the highway death toll dropped to nearly 41,000. "Some might say this is great progress, but can we, as a civilized society, say that our nation has done all it can when 41,000 Americans are likely to lose their lives this year?," Stone said. "Our nation is stuck in neutral when it comes to the waging a real fight against our highway death toll," added Stone. "We want this turn of the century to be the beginning of a renaissance period for highway and auto safety."

To help jump-start that process, Advocates today released a report outlining more than 90 recommendations to dramatically reduce death and injury on our highways. The report -- called "Stuck in Neutral: Recommendations for Shifting the Highway and Auto Safety Agenda into High Gear" - covers a wide array of safety concerns about the vehicle, the driver and the road itself. The report calls for federal action to revamp car and truck safety standards. It also outlines legislative action to improve safety belt and child restraint protection, to stop drunk driving, to combat red light running, and to address growing concerns about older and younger drivers.

Among its recommendations for overhauling federal auto safety standards, Advocates urged the U.S. Department of Transportation to:

"The Harris poll showed that consumers are willing to pay more to protect themselves and their families," said Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen and a member of the Advocates national board. "Consumers demand and expect that the latest technologies, the best products based on the latest knowledge, will be incorporated into the new vehicles they buy."

Safety concerns were also expressed today in response to U.S. Census Bureau predictions of large increases in teen and older (65 years +) drivers in many states over the next decade. From 1988 to 1998, there was a 12 percent drop in total traffic fatalities in our country. But for persons 70 years or older, the number of fatalities increased by 17 percent. As the Baby Boom generation begins to reach retirement age, the population of drivers over 65 is expected to grow by 60 percent by year 2025. Most people have a driving test only when they get a driver's license for the first time.

Advocates called on the states to more frequently test older drivers and to consider "graduated licensing" for older drivers. Much like traditional graduated driver licensing that is used to allow new drivers to adjust to increasingly more difficult driving situations, graduated systems for older drivers work in the reverse by reducing driving privileges according to the drivers' ability to handle the demands of different types of driving situations.

This form of graduated licensing allows trained licensing authorities to assist by making evaluations of driving skills. Under such systems, a driver's license can be custom tailored to the driver's specific abilities and may increase such limitations as day driving only, use of special equipment like wide-angle mirrors or requiring a companion in the car.

Another approach to address the older driver issue is a law recently enacted in Missouri giving doctors and family members permission to report an older driver whose driving is questionable, and to permit the Motor Vehicle Administration to test the older driver. Both approaches were praised for reevaluating the older driver's performance based on driving skill rather than on age alone.

Advocates also urged each state to enact graduated licensing laws for new drivers. Last year, 14 percent of all the drivers involved in fatal crashes were between 15 and 20 years of age, in spite of the fact that teen drivers account for only 7 percent of all licensed drivers.

On July 14, 1998, a newly-licensed 16 year-old driver caused a multiple fatal crash near a high school in Bethesda, Maryland, that resulted in three deaths, including that of teen passenger Matthew Waymon of Takoma Park, Maryland. Matthew Waymon's father, Todd Waymon, spoke at today's news conference, and urged all states to enact graduated licensing laws and to require more frequent testing of younger drivers. "We need to make sure that every state enacts a Graduated Licensing Law that phases in the full driving privilege of new drivers," Waymon said. "Also requiring our youngest drivers to be tested more frequently would surely save lives."

Waymon also backed Advocates' call on each state to enact laws allowing standard enforcement of seat belt laws. "If our nation is serious about highway safety, there is nothing more important the states can do to protect our families than to pass comprehensive seat belt laws that require everyone, of all ages and in all seating positions to buckle up."

Another issue that attracted broad public support in the Harris poll was intersection safety. According to the Federal Highway Administration, from 1992 to 1998, the number of fatal crashes at intersections has increased by 16 percent, while all other types of fatal crashes have increased by only 5 percent. Drivers who ran red lights were involved in 89,000 crashes, causing more than 1,000 violent deaths and 80,000 injuries last year. "Red light running is a growing problem, and it's not confined to a specific demographic profile," said Jacqueline Gillan, the Vice President for Advocates. "Red light running is one of the most dangerous things any driver can do. I found this out the hard way." Last year, Gillan was injured in a crash caused by a red light runner at a Maryland intersection.

The Harris poll found growing strong support for intersection cameras to catch red light runners. Safety advocates are also urging states to consider engineering design solutions to dangerous intersections. With rising pedestrian traffic on many urban and suburban streets, pollster Harris said "it is not a surprise to find a solid 70 percent majority of Americans believe that more attention should be paid to this new danger zone."

Alan Maness, Federal Affairs Director and Counsel for State Farm Insurance, pointed out that red light running cameras at intersections are part of a new wave of effective technology that is showing great promise in its early stages. The public is right on target when it comes to intersection safety, and we urge every state and community to adopt stop this lifesaving technology."

The Advocates' report also recommended that Congress withhold federal highway funds from states that fail to enact laws to require standard enforcement of state seat belt laws, to set the legal limit for drunk driving at 0.08% BAC, and to require motorcyclists of all ages to wear safety helmets.

A national cross-section of 1,005 randomly chosen adults 18 years of age and over was surveyed by Peter Harris Research Group, under contract to Louis Harris. The interviewing took place from August 17 - August 26, 1999.

The findings of the Lou Harris poll and the Advocates' report on "Stuck in Neutral: Recommendations for Shifting the Highway and Auto Safety Agenda into High Gear" can be found on the Advocates web site: http://www.saferoads.org.



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