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Motion System Design

In the Loop: Get ready to rumble

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released some startling statistics. Last year, more than 3.5 million people were injured and almost 43,000 were killed in traffic accidents on U.S. highways. Since 1996, highway crashes have claimed more than a quarter of a million lives, and are the leading cause of death for people six to 28 years of age. The toughest pill to swallow is that, according to the NHTSA, most accidents are preventable.

Making America’s highways safer is, of course, easier said than done. It’s not that the solution isn’t obvious — fix roads, save lives — there’s just too much money and politics involved to have intelligent solutions rise to the top.

The biggest roadblock by far is the legal industry. Let’s face it, everyone with a law degree knows that the way to save motorists’ lives is to sue the daylights out of carmakers and their suppliers. It’s as if trial lawyers somehow believe the more money that flows into their pockets, the better off we all are. First they sued carmakers because they didn’t have airbags, now they’re suing them because they do.

Another obstacle standing in the way of safer roads is the political process itself. There’s not a vote on any issue that can’t be linked to a totally unrelated cause. Leave it to some social reformer to connect traffic fatalities to privatized medicine, capital gains tax, or global warming.

Safer roads are possible, however, and there’s a qualified group, the National Society of Professional Engineers, with a workable plan. Instead of filling lawyers’ wallets and still having nothing to show for it, the NSPE wants the dollars spent on the roads themselves. It may not be the most glamorous solution — widening lanes and shoulders, adding medians, and fixing worn bridges — but studies show it’s the most effective in terms of saving lives.

To reinforce its position, the NSPE has issued a fact sheet correlating specific road improvements with reduced fatality rates. The statistics are based on data gathered over a 20-year period by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the NHTSA.

Improving turning lanes and traffic signals, for example, reduces fatality rates by 47 percent. Adding a median reduces fatalities by 75 percent. Other changes and their effect include bridge widening (49 percent), upgrading bridge rails (75 percent), building a new bridge (86 percent), widening or improving shoulders (22 percent), realigning roadways (66 percent), and grooving pavement for skid treatment (33 percent). Adding rumble strips pays off too, reducing driver-drift crashes by as much as 65%.

To further raise awareness for highway safety, the NSPE has designated October 10 as “Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day.” The observance, which started as the dream of one engineer and NSPE member, has grown into an annual event supported by 40 national engineering, highway, and safety organizations. If you would like to lend your support or simply learn more, visit for details. Who knows, the life you help save may be your own.

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