April 8 editorial: Click! The sound of life

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THE ISSUE: Seat belts save lives OUR VIEW: So use them

By The Staff

Obscured last week by the billowing clouds of economic despair was a bit of good news out of the nation’s capital:  Fewer people died on U.S. highways in 2008 than any year since 1961, when John F. Kennedy was president.

Millions more vehicles are on the road today than there were then, speeding millions of more miles annually but yet, according to preliminary calculations, 37,313 people died in motor vehicle crashes last year, 9.1 percent lower than in 2007 when 41,059 died and the fewest since 1961 when there were 36,285 deaths.

Even more significant than the raw percentages, the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled also was the lowest on record, 1.28 compared to 1.36 a year earlier and half the 2.58 recorded in 1983.

Some officials linked the decline to the recession and $4-per-gallon fuel forcing many motorists to drive less to save money. And they probably are at least partially right. While the number of miles driven has steadily increased the last few decades, the estimated miles traveled last year fell by 3.6 percent to 2.92 trillion. And during previous difficult times, such as the 1973-74 oil crisis and inflation, fatalities declined 16 percent and about 11 percent during the 1981-82 recession.

But the experts also cite factors that could continue to save lives beyond the inevitable economic recovery. It definitely is not a statistical anomaly that record low highway deaths were posted at the same time seat belt use reached a record high, or as enforcement of drunken driving laws is emphasized and safe-driving groups become more aggressive and effective. Seat belt use climbed to 83 percent last year, a record, thanks largely to states, including Kentucky, that enacted tougher laws enabling law enforcement officers to stop motorists not wearing safety belts. In fact, usage in 14 states and the District of Columbia reached 90 percent or better.

Kentucky can celebrate along with our neighbors. There were 36 fewer highway traffic deaths reported on the state’s highways, one of the state’s safest years in a decade. Still, 828 people died in traffic crashes and, sadly, 64 percent of them were not wearing belts. Just think how many of those no longer with us might still be among their loved ones if they had taken that brief second to fasten their belts around them.

We have the fourth lowest rate of seat belt use among all 50 states, according to the Kentucky State Police Highway Safety Branch headed by Commissioner Rodney Brewer. Last year approximately 73 percent of motorists routinely buckled up before taking to Kentucky’s highways and byways, up slightly from 71.8 percent in 2007, according to a survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s in stark contrast to motorists in our neighboring states.

In Ohio, 82.7 percent buckled up last year, in Indiana and Illinois more than 90 percent, West Virginia nearly 90 percent and in Tennessee 81.5 percent. What’s the difference between them and us? Are they smarter? Are they better able to understand that seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat occupants by 45 percent and the risk of critical injury by 50 percent? Or that inpatient hospital care costs for unbelted crash victims are 50 percent higher (85 percent of which we, not the victims, pay)? According to statistics quoted by the KSP, if 90 percent of American motorists would use their seat belts, more than 5,500 deaths and 132,000 injuries would be prevented every year.

Don’t know about you, but we’re convinced.


This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.