The motor vehicle is an essential part of modern living, and with it the problem of ensuring maximum safety for the driver, passengers, occupants of other vehicles, and pedestrians has become a grave concern. The problem is especially acute in the United States, where in the late 1960's more than 75 million passenger cars and more than 14 million trucks were registered; by 1980, according to estimates, the total number of vehicles might be 120 million. More than 64 percent of American workers drive or ride to work in cars, and most teenagers begin to drive as soon as they reach the legal driving age. In a typical year, motor fatalities in the United States exceed 40,000, and disabling injuries total about 1.8 million. The total annual cost of traffic accidents, representing medical expenses, property damage, insurance payments, and loss of work time is estimated at $8.5 billion.
Cause of Accidents
Research has indicated that there is no simple answer to the question of what causes traffic accidents. Each accident is a complex occurrence, involving more than one and sometimes many factors. Determination of the exact cause often is made difficult by inadequate reports from police at the scene, who in many cases are not equipped to collect and submit scientifically accurate information. In general, however, the causes lie in one of three areas: the driver, the car, or the road.
In the early 1960's, most traffic safety projects in the United States were centered on the driver. However, in 1965, interest shifted to the car. Mechanical defects and inadequate car safety design were the subject of congressional investigations, articles in the press, and programs on radio and television. For the first time, the federal government intervened in a major way in the traffic safety field. The General Services Administration, purchaser of all cars used by the U.S. government, drew up a list of many safety features which it required on cars it bought. Many of these features were later adopted as standard equipment by manufacturers.
Most safety authorities agree that driver error is involved in some 90 percent of traffic accidents. About four out of five drivers involved in fatal traffic accidents are violating some traffic law when the accident occurs. The commonest offense in the United States is "speed too fast for conditions" (37 percent), followed by "driving left of the center line" (14 percent).
As a guide to drivers, the American Automobile Association (AAA) has recommended the following basic rules of the road.
Basic Rules of the Road
- Be a sportsmanlike driver. Be courteous to every other driver and every pedestrian.
- Keep speed reasonable for existing conditions.
- Reduce speed at sundown. Drive so that you can stop within the visibility range of your headlights.
- Stay behind the car ahead of you at least one car length for each 10 miles per hour of speed.
- Stay in your line at hillcrests and curves.
- Be extra alert at intersections.
- Drive so as to protect pedestrians.
- Do not drive so slowly that you impede traffic.
- Always give yourself enough time. Don't hurry.
- Get into the proper lane well in advance of turning. Always signal your intention to turn or stop.
- Don't drive when angry or emotionally upset.
- Yield your right-of-way to another driver if he is unsportsmanlike enough to try to bluff you.
- Use the rearview mirror frequently.
- Keep in the right lane except to pass. Don't weave.
Mechanical failures, such as faulty brakes or tire blowouts, cause fewer accidents than formerly, as a result of improvements in automobile design and construction. Periodic motor-vehicle inspection, required by many states, is a valuable preventive of these failures. Care of the car is a basic ingredient of driving safety. Cars should be checked regularly by competent mechanics. The AAA recommends these points for attention:
- Steering. Are the front wheels aligned? Is the steering wheel free of excess play?
- Windshield Wipers: Do they work properly and wipe clean?
- Exhaust System: Is it tight, quiet, and leak free? Carbon monoxide leaks can be lethal.
- Tires: Are they properly inflated? Do they have ample tread, and are they free from uneven wear and injury? Tires should be rotated every 5,000 miles.
- Seat Belts: These should certainly be installed, and buckled on every time one gets in a car. Thousands of lives a year would be saved if every car were outfitted with seat belts and occupants used them.
- Lights and Turn Signals: Do all lights operate properly? Are the headlights aimed to avoid glare?
- Horn: Does it work properly?
- Glass: Is all glass clean, and free from cracks, discoloration, and unauthorized stickers?
- Good vision is important to driving safety.
- Rearview Mirrors: Are they adjusted for a clear view of the road behind?
- Brakes: Have them tested regularly.
Prevention of Accidents
Efforts to prevent traffic accidents, with their rising toll of deaths and injuries, are being pushed by local, state, and federal agencies in the United States and by such organizations as the AAA, the National Safety Council, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Large sums are being spent and imaginative techniques employed in research. Since most studies assign major responsibility for accidents to the driver, the principal preventive moves are centered on him. These include improving the driving qualifications of motorists on the road and educating young people for their roles as drivers in the future.