Bill Harsha, republican of Ohio and the Ranking Minority Member of the US House of Representatives Committee on Public Works in 1971, was the leader of the momentous shift in highway safety policy from the traditional emphasis of trying to alter the behavior of drivers and pedestrians to focus on first improving the safety of existing roads. He was, however, very aware of the need for “the public” to get behind safety campaigns. He reflected that a general public interest is usually critical to move populations to meet societal needs like conserving the environment, disease control, and public hygiene. He specifically raised the issue regarding the urgent matter at the time in the United States, reducing road traffic tragedy.
“... as of March 1973, the leaders of road traffic safety in the United States believed there was little public support for road safety programs and that this lack of support impeded progress.”
At the hearings in the build-up to the enactment of the Highway Safety Act of 1973, Harsha probed the acknowledged leaders on road traffic safety on this point of public support for road safety initiatives:
As part of his testimony, Franklin M. Kreml, President, Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association said:
“The third reason for the failure of the 1966 [Highway Safety] act is the lack of public support and understanding.”
In a dialogue during the testimony of Howard Pyle, President of the National Safety Council, and Paul F. Hill, Assistant General Manager for Traffic Safety:
Mr. Harsha: “How do we overcome public apathy and get the public involved? Certainly, to make a successful program, the public will have to become involved.”
Mr. Pyle: “We, for a great many years, have professed to be as heavily involved in developing public support for safety on all of the fronts that interest us as any organization operating today. We have to really confess that we have not been able to generate as much support for the types of things that are indispensable to our success in this field as we would like to see. In the absence of such it behooves all of us, by every device we can possibly think of and be able to muster, to continue to try to generate this support.”
Mr. Hill: “We have long had a feeling that we must reach the individual to the degree that he feels he could be involved, and I think our big problem today is that everybody thinks accidents are going to involve other people, not me. Now, I feel, I guess, that until we package this story in a more challenging, interesting and provocative fashion, we are not going to get the attention of the people who must not only take their responsibility and role in the program, but also have a feeling that it is going to affect him and his family.”
In his testimony, Louis Spitz, Executive Director of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), stated:
“AAMVA is convinced that citizen participation is imperative if highway safety is to become a true national priority of the dimensions commensurate with the problems it causes.”
In subsequent questioning:
Mr. Harsha: “I believe you stated that any program of this nature [highway safety], in order to be successful, has to have citizen participation or citizen support. And until we can find some way to involve the citizens and get their support and backing, our chances of success are not as good as they would be if we had citizen involvement. Am I correct in that?”
Mr. Spitz: “Yes.”
Mr. Harsha: “Now, I believe we can say that as of now we don’t have that kind of involvement, can we not?”
Mr. Spitz: “We don’t. No.”
And so, as of March 1973, the leaders of road traffic safety in the United States believed there was little public support for road safety programs and that this lack of support impeded progress.
Missing Rules of the Roads
It may be that there was never much enthusiasm by the American public for traffic safety prior to the 1970’s. As the new engine powered carriages and wagons appeared in the early 1900’s, annual road deaths mounted an upward trajectory. Almost universally, America’s streets were unruly. There were few, if any, laws and regulations about cars and trucks or the expected behavior of drivers or pedestrians sharing the roads with them.
The Detroit News called the period 1900 to 1930 “The Years of Driving Dangerously.” New traffic laws and regulations had to be enacted, popular acceptance won, and then enforcement prepared to rein in the chaos. Those living in the early decades of the 20th century were hassled with proposals and regulations for driver and pedestrian behavior. Many saw the necessity for these changes while others saw impositions of government and objected to being told how to drive or where to cross a street.
Up until the 1930’s, the emphasis was to get control on urban streets. In 1920, there were over 9 million registered vehicles and 12,155 fatalities. In 1930, there were just under 27 million vehicles and 31,204 fatalities. Those increases got attention from civic organizations, the auto industry, governments, churches, various others and the media. During the 1920’s, there were booster events with “safety parades” and other activities to draw attention to the consequences of road traffic crashes. Public support materialized. New initiatives appeared in schools with high quality materials. There was a focus on being good examples to children. People started crossing at the corners even if there were no crosswalks. Road traffic deaths reached 32,914 in 1940 with 32.5 million registered vehicles.
Then attention shifted abruptly as World War II erupted in Europe. The war effort, and later the recovery, pushed road safety aside with no serious national efforts. From 1934 to 1961, except for a dip during the war decade of the 1940’s, traffic fatalities in America hovered around 35,000 annually.
Traditional Action Seems to Repel Public Support
After the war, the number of road traffic fatalities again drew attention from civic-minded local people and organizations and from similar municipal, county, or statewide groups and all the way up to the White House. Harry Truman himself jumped into the issue by starting annual conferences on road safety. New ideas advanced driver training, licensing, law enforcement, vehicle registration and inspection, crash investigation, record keeping, and road design and maintenance. Sophisticated emergency services were integrated with hospitals; “medivac” capabilities became available.
Road traffic safety efforts during these years embraced interventions emphasizing improving the behavior of drivers and pedestrians. The message for a while was: “Drive safely; the life you save may be your own,” assuming behavior was the ultimate variable in reducing road traffic crashes, injuries and fatalities. Despite these ongoing efforts, total fatalities began inexorable annual increases in 1962. The earliest of the Baby Boomer generation reached driving age this year resulting in American roads having to absorb increasing number of cars with their new and inexperienced drivers.
“The message for a while was: “Drive safely; the life you save may be your own,” assuming behavior was the ultimate variable in reducing road traffic crashes, injuries and fatalities.”
Media attention and political action developed with earlier sentiments echoed: Could not a modern technological society do something to contain the road traffic tragedy? Would growing death and injury totals be a necessary cost of a modern society? The Highway Safety Act of 1966 was intended to address the issue. It tried to achieve universal road safety standards. Again, the focus was on improving the behavior of drivers and pedestrians. However, annual fatalities kept increasing, reaching 55,600 in 1972. The driving public seemed to show little enthusiasm for the enacted safety actions and many appeared to feel they were being blamed for the problem.
In much of suburban, exurban and rural America in the early 1970’s, those driving off the Interstate Highway system found themselves on roads often without reflectorized edge lines, center lines and passing zones. Day or night, they entered intersections without controls. They passed unprotected roadside ditches or edges of cliffs, saw dangerous roadside obstacles and negotiated difficult alignments. They dealt with limited sight distances and rail-highway crossings without gates or flashing warning lights.
“... the new focus to use road safety engineering to make existing roads as safe as possible as soon as possible transformed the American driving environment for tens of millions of road users.”
With the enactment of the Highway Safety Act of 1973, the new focus to use road safety engineering to make existing roads as safe as possible as soon as possible transformed the American driving environment for tens of millions of road users. They noticed that “their” roads got reflectorized edge lines and center lines; their uncontrolled intersections got signs or signals, stop bars and crosswalks; their roads got warning signs and guardrails, and they saw obstacles removed, impact attenuators added and rail-highway crossings upgraded. It was a huge, multi-year, national project. However, at the local level, the transformation happened very fast and it was unmistakable.
There is no scientific proof of improved public response resulting from the road safety engineering actions, but there is evidence of an effect. That there was little public interest or involvement prior to the Highway Safety Act of 1973 is clear in the testimonies of the quoted road safety leaders. But then, when the road safety engineering improvements started helping drivers avoid mistakes, many began to understand the benefits of edge lines, center lines and intersection controls. They saw upgrades of their roads and rail-highway crossings. These were continuous reminders of road traffic safety efforts that lasted or were regularly renewed. As local media reported on the improvements, the progress was reinforced. This then seemed to harness further support from the public for other road safety programs.
Although the first seatbelts appeared in the 1950’s, by 1984 only 14% of Americans buckled up. In the decade following 1985, when most of the road safety engineering actions had been completed, seatbelt use compliance increased 84%. True, seatbelt laws at the state level were passed, but mostly without primary enforcement. This dramatic improvement in compliance happened despite the fact that Americans do not like to be told what to do in their cars.
“There had to be at least some increased public interest and support for road traffic safety to make such a profound cultural change.”
Alcohol related fatalities decreased by 31%, also in the decade after 1985. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) ran a campaign, supported by the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, that changed a portion of American culture. Designated drivers appeared. It became socially acceptable, even expected, that hosts or friends would take the keys of someone unfit to drive. It is unlikely that this happened because of MADD or a Presidential Commission alone. There had to be at least some increased public interest and support for road traffic safety to make such a profound cultural change.
In the United States, the death rate per 100,000 population was 25.6 in 1973. By 1985, it was 18.4, a reduction of 28 percent. During this same period, and taken into consideration the increase in vehicle miles traveled, injury crashes were reduced 21%. The reduction in crashes and fatalities happened mainly on rural roads where the road safety engineering actions were concentrated. Over the following decades, as seatbelt use rose, impaired driving declined and other crash and fatality countermeasures became effective, the death rate continued to improve and was 10.9 in 2015. Other rich countries made even greater road safety advances. Western Europe now has an average population death rate of about five with some countries achieving a rate below three. Seatbelt use often exceeds 90 percent. In many of these countries, there is a strong societal stigma against drinking and driving.
Implications for Developing Countries
The 1973 Highway Safety Act was the first legislation to create a program to help drivers and pedestrians avoid mistakes on the roads with road safety engineering. It responded to the increases in young and inexperienced drivers and their cars, and to more traffic on the most dangerous roads in rural areas made accessible by the opening of the Interstate Highway system. Road safety engineering actions delivered unmistakable “messages” on the roads for road users. These actions became an unintended campaign that raised public support for road safety. Similar developments occurred in other rich countries around the world.
Now, these same conditions of new drivers and increased vehicles, coupled with safety-deficient roads, are common in developing countries. The current, and mostly behavior modification based, countermeasures promoted there are far from sufficient to address the increasing carnage.
“Road safety engineering is likely the only realistic way of awakening public support for road safety in developing nations.”
Road safety engineering is likely the only way of awakening public support for road safety in developing nations. Only dreamy optimists believe that the people of these nations will be eager to fall in line behind behavior modification based efforts. Those people are mostly cynical about government and government officials and are conditioned to resist. A coordinated road safety engineering program of making existing roads as safe as possible as soon as possible, with associated publicity, could help garner the necessary public support needed for making related campaigns work promoting helmet wearing, seatbelt fastening, speed control and refraining from drinking and driving.
“Garnering public support for road traffic safety efforts may be as important a result of road safety engineering as reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities.”
Garnering public support for road traffic safety efforts may be as important a result of road safety engineering as reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities. Can road safety campaigns be successful in developing countries without public support? If public support is needed, how is it marshalled? Does the WHO leadership have a plan for garnering public support or have they even thought about it?
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