Few topics in transportation are of greater significance, now and in the future, than highway safety. In the developed world, highway crashes constitute a major public health problem; in the United States, they are the leading cause of injury deaths and the sixth leading cause of death overall. In the developing world, growing motorization will likely lead to similar consequences.
During the past two decades, the United States has made substantial progress in reducing traffic fatalities and injuries by improving vehicle crashworthiness, promoting the use of seat belts and other occupant protections, enacting and enforcing stricter laws for persons driving under the influence of alcohol, and designing more forgiving roads. Nonetheless, the problem remains large, with more than 40,000 deaths annually. Unless effective new countermeasures are introduced, the death and injury toll will begin to rise again as motor vehicle travel continues to increase.
With regard to highway safety, the oft-quoted line from Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” comic strip is apt: We have met the enemy and he is us. It is the active involvement of the general public in operating motor vehicles that at once is responsible for much of the problem and greatly complicates the solution. In this edition of Issues, four articles explore an illustrative set of highway safety issues that involve human performance and decisionmaking. M. Granger Morgan follows up a National Research Council (NRC) study that recommended safety labeling of new motor vehicles to encourage the manufacture and purchase of safer vehicles. John D. Graham proposes that we accept the popularity of sport utility vehicles and work to improve their safety and environmental performance. A. James McKnight discusses the dilemma of older drivers who rely on motor vehicles for essential mobility but, because of diminished physical abilities, may pose a risk to themselves and other travelers. Alison Smiley explains why in-vehicle high-tech devices may not be as successful as some believe at reducing driver error.
Highway crashes have many of the attributes that studies show are associated with decreased public concern: Drivers feel they are in control, the risks of driving are familiar, and fatalities and injuries are scattered in small groups and receive relatively little attention from the press. In contrast, commercial aviation, which is far safer, has many of the opposite attributes; accordingly, the public has high expectations regarding commercial aviation safety. In the final article, Clinton V. Oster, Jr., John S. Strong, and C. Kurt Zorn present approaches for meeting these expectations as air traffic increases in the years ahead.
Although the authors of these papers have diverse backgrounds, one thing they have in common, in addition to an interest in transportation safety, is participation in the activities of the NRC’s Transportation Research Board (TRB). For 80 years, TRB has provided a place for transportation researchers and practitioners to share information, discuss research needs, and explore policy options for the future. Its activities cut across disciplinary boundaries, and each year its annual meeting attracts more than 8,000 transportation professionals from around the world. In the field of transportation safety alone, TRB maintains 22 standing technical committees with more than 500 members. Readers who are interested in TRB’s highway safety activities or other work can find out more at the National Academies’ website: www.national-academies.org/trb.
Robert E. Skinner, Jr. is executive director of the Transportation Research Board.