How people get killed on the road

May 17, 2001
... I accumulated 100 newspaper articles detailing fatal accidents. I was looking for common threads, and there were several. The biggest by far was age...

Machine Design, Editorial Comment
May 3, 2001

Four years ago I wrote an editorial inspired by the fact that the enforcement of traffic laws seems to bear no relationship to safe driving. It is fitting that I am writing this update on the prior column after having witnessed, while standing at my bus stop, a radar cop writing traffic tickets this morning. He was in a school zone enforcing a 20-mph limit but with nary a child in sight. There were no kids around because it was 7:30 a.m., a full hour before school starts. There aren't even buses or cars going into the school at that hour. And to top it all off, the school sets well back from a busy five-lane highway with no crosswalks in the school zone. There are crosswalks just outside the designated school zone, and they have traffic lights and crossing guards to protect kids when they are actually on the scene. Over several days watching this action, I've seen cops repeatedly and recklessly barge into moving traffic and then dangerously tie up a lane to bust people driving no more than 30 mph. Only in America.

For the earlier editorial, I accumulated 100 newspaper articles detailing fatal accidents. I was looking for common threads, and there were several. The biggest by far was age, with teenagers causing 31% of the accidents in my sample. There were other observations as well, but let's get to more recent examples.

I've collected a batch of 174 new cases. What we see is that the dangerous teenagers in the earlier study have grown into dangerous drivers in their twenties. The proportion of fatal accidents caused by teens dropped to 20%, but it grew to 26% among 20 year olds. So about 46% of all fatal accidents were caused by people in their teens or twenties. But drivers in their thirties, responsible for 19% of fatal accidents, proved to be almost as dangerous as teenagers.

As in my prior study, the great majority of fatal accidents, 79%, were on city streets and rural roads. Only 21% were on freeways. Time of day is an important factor, with the hours between midnight and 3:00 a.m. accounting for one in four fatal accidents.

An important role in fatalities is played by what I call perpetual losers who take their disorderly lives onto the highway. These people drive at outrageous speeds, flee the police, drive while drunk, or are on drugs. They accounted for 24% of fatalities. Within individual age groups, 24% of all teenagers causing fatalities were -- or seem destined to be -- perpetual losers, and among drivers in their twenties who caused fatal accidents, a whopping 42% were in the perpetual-loser category.

Overall, most fatalities were caused by drivers running off the road, possibly because of speed but mostly for inexplicable reasons. They accounted for 32% of fatal incidents. Turning left into oncoming traffic or pulling into traffic from a stop sign contributed to 17%. Crossing the centerline accounted for 14%. Contrary to what might be expected from the propaganda we hear, speed was an unmistakable factor in only 10% of the accidents.

In summary, there doesn't seem to be any sure-fire way to reduce fatalities. One thing the police could do is step up patrols between midnight and 3:00 a.m., or they could try harder to keep perpetual losers off the road. Either of these would be better than ticketing moms driving 30 mph past my bus stop on their way to work.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor

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