Motor Vehicle Safety and Public Health

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Motor Vehicle Safety and Public Health


By: Tim Wright

Date: September 4, 1998

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Corbis. September 4, 1998.

About the Photographer: Tim Wright is a photographer and photojournalist whose photographic and written work has appeared in numerous popular and new magazines for over twenty years. In addition to his extensive magazine work, both in the United States and around the world, Wright has completed extensive corporate and advertising professional assignments.


According to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, a division of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) represented the single greatest cause of death in the United States in the year 2002, for all persons between the ages of three and thirty-three years old (43,005 deaths). In 2003, 42,884 people lost their lives as a result of highway fatalities. According to the NHTSA published statistics for the year 2004, there were 42,636 people killed in automobile accidents, and motor vehicle accidents remained the number one killer for persons between the ages of three and thirty-three. For all age groups, motor vehicle accidents consistently rank among the top ten causes of death (often placed under the category of unintentional injury).

Although the statistics for roadway fatalities have maintained an overall downward trend since reaching a high of 116,385 in 1969 in terms of overall numbers, the results have remained consistent in terms of the ranking of roadway-based fatalities among leading causes of death. The great overall decrease in highway deaths has been due, in large measure, to the use of seatbelts (which now includes both lap belts and shoulder harnesses), child safety restraint systems, airbags, stringent laws regarding motor vehicle safety and construction, and significantly improved highway and traffic safety law—including the enforcement of speed limits and driving-under-the-influence or driving-while-intoxicated (DWI/DUI) laws.

One of the central figures in the institution and enforcement of changes in motor vehicle and roadway/highway safety has been an activist and advocate named Ralph Nader. In 1965, Nader published the first edition of the now legendary book Unsafe at Any Speed, which was a condemnation of the automotive industry for its lack of mechanical safety standards. The book, as well as media attention drawn from Nader's advocacy and activism, eventually resulted in a spate of automobile safety laws, beginning the following year (1966). With the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, the motor vehicle industry became subject to federal regulations for the first time. His work led to standards in automobile safety manufacturing that permitted, for the first time, the creation of industry standards and data collection that allowed for recall and repair of defective groups of automobiles (for example, recalling a particular year, make, and model of vehicle for repair of defective accelerator system construction). He was also responsible for the creation of the Center for Auto Safety, and the creation of what has come to be known as the Lemon Law, which affords protection to purchasers of used cars.



See primary source image.


As motor vehicle safety standards became more stringent, it became necessary to find a means of testing the claims of manufacturers, in order to ascertain whether they were truthful in their advertising, and whether the vehicles really did perform as described. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has created a Vehicle Research Center (also called the VRC), designed to accomplish that function. Although the federal government does large-scale testing through the NHTSA, it is generally the data released by the VRC that attracts the most media attention. The goals of the two agencies, while compatible, are slightly different; the IIHSVRC is a not-for-profit research center whose sole purpose is to reduce the number of fatalities attributed to automobile accidents, by rendering cars better able to withstand serious collisions. The VRC not only crash tests individual makes and models of motor vehicles, it also performs crash testing with two moving vehicles having front-and side-impact collisions, and can crash test at higher speeds (up to fifty miles per hour). Crash simulations are also done with "crash-test dummies" to examine individual components and their protective efficacy, such as seat belts, driver, passenger and side curtain air bags, child restraint systems, headrests, and the like. They do this in order to assess the performance of the individual component or system independent of the damage to the rest of the vehicle during a collision. The data gleaned by both agencies' research and testing is submitted to the motor vehicle manufacturers, with safety ratings and recommendations for specific improvements.

Crash-test dummies have been created in a range of the configurations likely to occur in the average motor vehicle using population: six-month-old infant, twelve-month-old toddler, three-year-old and six-year-old children, small female, medium-sized male, and large male. They are constructed so as to be as biomechanically similar to humans as possible; that is, they must conform to the height, weight, body posture, and movement on impact of the humans that they are emulating, and are affixed with sensors to record the nature and types of forces and impact effects on various areas of the body during a collision.

There are a number of intervening factors that have contributed to the continuation of motor vehicle accidents as a leading cause of death among younger Americans. The NHTSA collects fatality data from various locations around the country, and uses it to make inferences about the factors contributing to fatal motor vehicle accidents in America annually. Although virtually the entire country has seat belt laws, not every area consistently enforces them, and a significant number of deaths are caused by injury or by ejection arising from failure to use seatbelts or child restraints, or from using them improperly. In 2004, nearly 40 percent of the vehicle occupants involved in fatal automobile or truck collisions were not wearing restraints, and nearly three-fourths of those in fatal accidents who were completely ejected from the vehicle had not worn restraints.

Substance abuse, particularly the use of alcohol, is a determining factor in many MVAs. The NHTSA estimates that nearly 17,000 people died in alcohol-related collisions in 2004, representing nearly 40 percent of all fatal MVAs; of those, thirty percent involved a driver had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above the legal limit for intoxication. Of those 2004 MVAs involving drivers who were legally intoxicated, one third were less than twenty-four years old, nearly 30 percent were between twenty-five and thirty-four years old, and slightly more than 20 percent were between thirty-five and forty-four. Among those who were at or above the legal level for intoxication, many had either been involved in previous MVAs, had prior DWI convictions—some involving license suspensions or revocations, or had prior speeding convictions. Alcohol, youth, and speeding are a particularly deadly combination. Thirty percent of all fatal crashes in 2004 involved drivers who were traveling at excessive speed for the roadway conditions; thirty-eight of those who were less than twenty years old were speeding when their fatal accidents occurred. Forty percent of the intoxicated drivers were speeding at the time of their fatal MVAs. Overall, the group with the greatest likelihood of being involved in a fatal MVA, particularly one involving alcohol, speeding, failure to employ restraints, or some combination of these, was males under the age of twenty-four. The NHTSA statistics reported that young males died in MVAs in 2004 three times more frequently than did females; they represented nearly seventy percent of all traffic or pedestrian deaths.



Nader, Ralph. Unsafe At Any Speed, 25th Anniversary Edition. Massachusetts: Knightsbridge Publishing Company, 1991.


Mcdonald, Kevin M. "Shifting Out of Neutral: A New Approach to Global Road Safety." The Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 38, no. 3 (2005): 743-790.

Web sites

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "FAQ." 〈〉 (accessed January 16, 2006).

The Nader Page. "Ralph Nader Biographical Information." 〈〉 (accessed January 16, 2006).

Tim Wright Photography. "About Tim Wright." 〈〉 (accessed January 16, 2006).

United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Traffic Safety Facts: 2004 Data." 〈〉 (accessed January 16, 2006).