Contrary to popular belief, the deadliest day on our nation’s roads is not New Year’s Eve. In each of the last several years, the Fourth of July was the country’s most dangerous—with at least 400 auto-related deaths each year marring independence celebrations nationwide. Approximately half the fatalities are related to drunk driving. Many of the other fatalities are from collisions with deer. Fireworks make them even more skittish than usual; twice as many deer jump in front of cars on July 4th than on the average day.* As this year’s Fourth of July approaches, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the AAA, and major media are all cranking up the reliable warnings that drivers need to stay sober, alert, and buckled up.
All of the attention to driver safety on the 4th is good. But amid all of the public service announcements, designated drivers, and police check points, a bigger message is missed: by historical standards, our cars are incredibly safe. In 2010 U.S. automobile deaths were the lowest they’ve been since 1949. (And that’s despite Americans driving 20,000,000,000 more miles in 2010 than in the year before. Yes, that’s 20 billion more miles!) The downward trend continued in 2011. Certainly, a number of factors play into this, including drunk-driving prevention programs and improved roads. But the number of major automobile safety innovations since 1949 is truly impressive. Seat belts, shatter resistant windshields, ABS brakes, air bags, crumple zones, and all-season radial tires have all saved thousands of lives. Of course, automakers have been pushed to make these changes—via law suits, regulation, and the buying preferences of an increasing safety-conscious public. But the accomplishment is undeniably real, even if we quibble over the root cause. So while celebrating this year’s Fourth of July, how about hoisting a non-alcoholic beer for automobile safety? // Michael Adelberg
*two years ago I crashed into a deer on July 4; the insurance claims person told me they get double the normal deer collision claims that day.