The Nut Behind the Wheel

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When somebody gets in a car wreck, there’s a group of people who rush to the scene to examine exactly what happened.

Frank Bandiero:
“Is there any accidents working right now, Joe?”

Roman Mars:
They’re called police officers.

Frank Bandiero:
“… and talk about reports and this and that, but maybe we can go right out out.”

Roman Mars:
This is New York state trooper, Frank Bandiero.

Stan Alcorn:
“Is something going on?”

Roman Mars:
And riding shotgun with Bandiero is Stan Alcorn, from the investigative reporting podcast “Reveal”.

Stan Alcorn:
I went for this ride-along last Spring, not so much to see a wreck as to see the paperwork.

Frank Bandiero:
“Oh, and something else I want to show you. Our accident report is right here.”

Stan Alcorn:
In the past 50 years, the car crash death rate has fallen by nearly 80% and one of the reasons for that drop has to do with this accident report form. It’s where Bandiero writes down the weather, draws a diagram of the wreck, identifies its primary cause.

Stan Alcorn:
“And so you’ve got like a whole list of possible causes, basically?”

Frank Bandiero:
“Oh, yeah. I don’t know if you could read those little things but there’s a million. I mean, to try to cover all the bases.”

Stan Alcorn:
“You’ve got 68 there. Animal action?”

Frank Bandiero:
“Exactly. Say a deer’s crossing a roadway. I try to tell my wife the safest thing to do is to slow down as much as you can without being unsafe and drive straight through the animal.”

Stan Alcorn:
“Really?”

Frank Bandiero:
“Yes.”

Stan Alcorn:
“As we joined the Long Island commuters on the Southern State Parkway, a call comes in over the radio.

Dispatcher:
“Auto accident at 22 down the center divider.”

Frank Bandiero:
“All right, we got one. The center divider is kind of dangerous.”

Stan Alcorn:
This turned out to be just a fender bender, but if it were one of the more than 30,000 fatal car accidents that happen each year…

Frank Bandiero:
“Stay in here for now.”

Stan Alcorn:
The information gathered on the side of the road would go from that accident report form into a federal database: The Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

Roman Mars:
Anyone can use this database, and car companies, safety advocates and regulators are combing through it constantly looking for patterns that help them understand how and why people die in car wrecks, which then helps designers and engineers create safer vehicles and roadways. The data informs all kinds of design decisions around car safety, everything from speed limits to mandatory seatbelts.

Stan Alcorn:
But this culture of heavily regulated, data-driven auto safety engineering. It did not always exist. In fact, at first automakers tried to keep data about car wrecks to themselves. They not only resisted making cars safer, they argued the very idea of a safe car was impossible.

Roman Mars:
The story starts in the early 20th century when car ads didn’t talk about their safety features. They talked about styling.

Car Ad:
“From the rakish flare of its new flight swept rear fenders right up to its bold but elegant new front styling. The new power-style Chrysler emphasizes the forward look of power in motion.”

“It looks like it’s still moving even when it stops.”

“Some design!”

Roman Mars:
A Chrysler safety director actually compared cars to women’s hats say that “they have to have special attractiveness and sometimes they even compromise with function.”

Stan Alcorn:
When safety was discussed, it wasn’t about the car, it was about the driver.

Car Ad:
“Unfortunately, there are drivers amongst us who are poor sports.”

Stan Alcorn:
Within 25 years of the first known fatal car crash, automobiles had become the leading cause of accidental death in the US, but all those deaths were blamed on the “nut behind the wheel”.

Car Ad:
“They are the reckless who cause the accidents that maim and kill.”

Roman Mars:
In other words, cars don’t kill people. People kill people.

Amy Gangloff:
The whole notion that the machine could have some sort of impact on the likelihood of you surviving a car crash wasn’t even on the radar during the first half of the 20th century.

Roman Mars:
This is Amy Gangloff, a historian who studies auto safety.

Stan Alcorn:
Safety-wise. How would you characterize the cars then and compare them to the cars of today?

Amy Gangloff:
In large part, they were death traps.

Roman Mars:
Forget seat belts and airbags. The first cars had windshields made out of regular old plate glass. If your head went through it, you could get stuck with shards of glass pressing into your neck.

Stan Alcorn:
But before someone could come up with a safer car, someone had to come up with the idea that cars could be safer. Gangloff traces that idea to a self-taught scientist named Hugh DeHaven.

Hugh DeHaven:
“You tell me.”

Stan Alcorn:
This is an old cassette tape I tracked down of DeHaven being interviewed.

Hugh DeHaven:
“The project really started at 1917 and ’18 when I was flying for the Royal Flying Corps.”

Stan Alcorn:
That’s the Canadian air force in World War I.

Amy Gangloff:
When he was just like 24 hours away from being commissioned, he had a horrific plane accident.

Hugh DeHaven:
“I ruptured my liver. I ruptured my pancreas. I ruptured my gallbladder. I ruptured my kidneys.”

Amy Gangloff:
While he was in the hospital, he had his kind of moment of his epiphany.

Hugh DeHaven:
“I had no loss of consciousness or any head injury, but I did have these abdominal injuries.”

Amy Gangloff:
He concluded that there was a sharp knob on his safety belt that had probably led to his injuries, and so he started thinking that perhaps we can package human beings better.

Stan Alcorn:
Not just in airplanes, but also in cars.

Roman Mars:
DeHaven started by crash testing objects, dropping eggs onto padding from higher and higher heights. He found an egg could survive a 100 foot fall if it landed on a three-inch-thick rubber mat.

Stan Alcorn:
Then he turned to human beings, tracking down the people behind actual newspaper headlines like girl falls 10 stories, lives and tells of it. And he learned that we are just like eggs. We can survive seemingly unsurvivable collisions if the impact is spread out over time and space, like when you fall into soft dirt or get thrown into a seatbelt instead of the windshield.

Roman Mars:
Finally, he turned to what was actually happening to people’s bodies in the most prolific source of high-speed collisions, cars. To do that, he called up hospitals, corners and police officers, most of whom thought he was nuts.

Speaker 11:
“Why was it thought to be so nutty, so crazy, Mr. DeHaven?”

Hugh DeHaven:
It’s a very simple thing. People in those days and people to this day, feel that if you get in a crash, you’re going to get hurt. When you’re not hurt in the crash, it is what they call the “Jesus factor”. You can’t calculate it.

Roman Mars:
DeHaven’s crazy theory was that what happened to people’s bodies in a car crash was not just luck. It wasn’t something you couldn’t calculate or change. It was a predictable product of the car’s design. It seems so common sense now it’s hard to even register it, but at the time it was revolutionary, and in the ’40s and ’50s DeHaven would prove it was true.

Stan Alcorn:
In 1953 he partnered with the Indiana State Police for a year-long study, and with their photos and reports from doctors and coroners, he was able to isolate which parts of the car were the most dangerous in a crash. And there were things that we don’t even think of now, like hard unpainted dashboards and steel knobs with sharp edges that would end up stuck in people’s skulls.

Amy Gangloff:
Yeah, he’s diagnosing exactly what’s causing the injuries inside the car.

Stan Alcorn:
And what does he find? What exactly does he find is causing most of these injuries?

Amy Gangloff:
The steering column. The steering column itself was not collapsible. So if you had a front end collision, the steering column would push up and might even push through somebody’s chest, like a spear that might actually impale somebody.

Stan Alcorn:
The solution was the now ubiquitous collapsible steering column, a technology that saved 79,989 lives as of 2012 according to one government study. That’s more than anything except the seatbelt.

Roman Mars:
But collapsible steering columns wouldn’t become centered equipment until 1967, more than a decade of the results of DeHaven’s Indiana study were published, because car companies just did not know to deal with his findings.

Amy Gangloff:
Car companies were very paranoid about having a discussion about safety in the 1950s because a discussion about safety was pretty much going to guarantee that people start thinking about the dangers of driving.

Roman Mars:
And it’s just not fun to drive when you’re thinking about a knob getting embedded in your skull or a steering column being jammed into your chest.

Amy Gangloff:
I mean, one of the things a Hugh DeHaven is definitely looking directly at is our mortality, and it’s kind of the analysis of risks, in general, require us to think about something that as a society we rarely, if ever, want to think about.

Stan Alcorn:
But to force society to think about it would take more than academic research. It would take politics.

Joan Claybrook:
“Do you want to have my name so you remember who I am?”

Stan Alcorn:
“Sure, we could do that. Do you want to say who you are?”

Joan Claybrook:
“This is Joan Claybrook.”

Stan Alcorn:
Joan Claybrook would eventually be in charge of auto safety for the United States. But in 1965 she was a political novice, coming to Washington for the first time as a fellow for the American Political Science Association.

Joan Claybrook:
And I signed up to work with a member of Congress from Atlanta, Georgia. And he was concerned about the kids in his neighborhood being killed in car crashes. And he had read “Unsafe at Any Speed”.

Roman Mars:
“Unsafe at Any Speed” was an unlikely bestseller by a car safety obsessed young lawyer named Ralph Nader.

Joan Claybrook:
So I read Ralph Nader’s book and that was the first time that I realized that the car design was crucial in your survival in a car crash.

Stan Alcorn:
The book took research by people like Hugh DeHaven and turned it into a scorching indictment that the auto industry, it showed car companies had actually patented safety technology, including the collapsible steering column. They just weren’t using it.

Joan Claybrook:
I got to know Ralph over this period because I was one of the most willing audiences for all the things he wanted to do.

Roman Mars:
Behind the scenes, Joan Claybrook worked with Ralph Nader on a bill to regulate the auto industry for the first time. Nader would give testimony in front of Congress that sounded like a grad student reading his overlaid academic thesis paper.

Stan Alcorn:
Just for flavor, here’s some from 1967.

Ralph Nader:
Amidst their frenetic activity to serve their corporate employers, these lawyers became afflicted with a tunnel vision that brings with it the familiar lawyer malady known as retainer astigmatism.

Roman Mars:
Boring as that sounds, the auto industry was terrified of regulation and of Nader.

Joan Claybrook:
And that’s why the auto industry hired a gumshoe to trail Nader and get some dirt on him and try and discredit him.

Roman Mars:
This was one of the greatest self-owns in American political history. General Motors didn’t get any dirt on Nader, but word got out they were trying to undermine him, and it made General Motors look just terrible.

Joan Claybrook:
And that’s what they did and that’s what made him a national hero. It gave him a lot of power.

Roman Mars:
In just a few months, the car companies had helped energize a movement to regulate car companies.

Stan Alcorn:
And that movement succeeded.

Lyndon Johnson:
“Distinguished members of the Congress, the administration and friends…”

Stan Alcorn:
On September 9th, 1966 president Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed more than 200 guests at the White House Rose Garden, including Ralph Nader and the president of General Motors.

Roman Mars:
What they heard was a President talking about cars in the language of public health.

Lyndon Johnson:
Four years now, we’ve tolerated a raging epidemic.

Roman Mars:
He called it highway disease, a disease that had killed more than three times as many Americans as all our wars, and despite our technological advances, we were failing to cure it.

Lyndon Johnson:
“In this age of space, we’re getting plenty of information about how to send men into space and how to bring them home. Yet we don’t know for certain whether more auto accidents are caused by faulty brakes or by soft shoulders or by drunk drivers or even by the deer crossing the highway.”

Stan Alcorn:
And with that, LBJ started signing bills.

Lyndon Johnson:
“The traffic safety act will ensure safer, better-protected cars in the event of an accident.”

Stan Alcorn:
That bill created a new federal agency, what’s now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It had the power to make car companies install seatbelts and collapsible steering columns and to set up those crash databases.

Roman Mars:
And in case that wasn’t enough, this bill to create a powerful government agency to regulate what were then some of the largest companies in the country, it passed with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. The ’60s were a very different time.

Lyndon Johnson:
“I thank each of you very much.”

Roman Mars:
Technologies that were mandated in the 1960s like seatbelts and collapsible steering columns are still saving thousands of lives each year, but the car crash death rate has continued to drop decade after decade in part because of smaller, subtler design changes. And to understand how those changes happen, you have to go back to the government databases of car crashes, the ones fed by police officers like Frank Bandiero and used by safety engineers like Matt Brumbelow.

Stan Alcorn:
“Hi.”

Matt Brumbelow:
“Matt Brumbelow.”

Stan Alcorn:
“Nice to meet you.”

Matt Brumbelow:
“Nice to meet you.”

Stan Alcorn:
“Matt Brumbleow is an engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or IIHS. On his desk he has both a car headlight and a giant paper book of federal regulations.”

Stan Alcorn:
“Federal register?”

Matt Brumbelow:
“Yeah, that’s my fun pastime.”

Stan Alcorn:
About 10 years ago, Matt was looking at that government database of fatal crashes.

Matt Brumbelow:
“Integrated government-run website.”

Stan Alcorn:
Sifting through the data, he noticed something.

Matt Brumbelow:
“Can you pull that up?”

Stan Alcorn:
People dying in head-on crashes in cars that were rated safe in head-on crash tests.

Roman Mars:
A lot of these crushes had a distinctive look. The passenger’s side was okay, but the driver’s side looks like a giant had destroyed the corner of the car with a croquet mallet, pushing the bumper past the engine.

Matt Brumbelow:
“And the wheel is often pushed either completely off or pushed way back towards the occupant space.”

Stan Alcorn:
“Did it take some time to recognize or it like immediate?”

Matt Brumbelow:
“It’s fairly immediate.”

Roman Mars:
He immediately recognized that this was a kind of crash these otherwise safe cars just hadn’t been designed to withstand, which to Matt was an opportunity.

Matt Brumbelow:
“We can probably do something about it.”

Stan Alcorn:
Something like designing a new crash test, a test IIHS has been doing since 2012. I went to one of these crash tests for the BMW X1. And in the hours before the main event, it’s kind of how I imagine it would be backstage before a show with a team of people running around making tiny cosmetic tweaks to the star.

Roman Mars:
Except the star is a compact SUV, and instead of hair and makeup, there are sensors and instruments.

Stan Alcorn:
And huddled in one corner of the room, engineers from BMW.

Stan Alcorn:
“So you’re basically here just to make sure they’re doing everything right?”

BMW Engineer:
“Well, they’re doing always everything right. No, just watching.”

Roman Mars:
But watching closely because BMW has a lot riding on this. An earlier model got a marginal rating on this test, one step below acceptable. So BMW redesigned the car.

BMW Engineer:
“It’s always designed for the new requirements. So if there was a new requirement from the IIHS, we have to redesign our cars then.”

Roman Mars:
How cars do during these tests matters to car buyers and so it matters to carmakers. These days safety sells and it justifies an incredibly rigorous technical process.

Stan Alcorn:
“What are you doing right now?”

Tyler Ayres:
“Putting a seatbelt sensor tape. So it’s tape that reads along these bars and tells us the movement of the seat belt.”

Stan Alcorn:
This is Tyler Ayres, dummy engineer.

Stan Alcorn:
“How many sensors are in this car right now?”

Tyler Ayres:
“Right now, at least for my dummy it’s 39 total, 39 total.”

Stan Alcorn:
“Tyler measures the crash test dummy’s position down to the millimeter.”

Tyler Ayres:
“Two, six, six.”

Stan Alcorn:
“And he finger paints the dummy’s face, half pink, half blue so we can see where it hits the airbags.”

Stan Alcorn:
“That’s fun, like kindergarten.”

Tyler Ayres:
“Yup, pretty much. I said I’ll get a job at the circus after I leave here, paint clown faces.”

Stan Alcorn:
“We’re done. Right?

Tyler Ayres:
“Let’s walk out of here.”

Stan Alcorn:
When we walk into the echo-y crash hall, it feels like more than just a test of a car. It feels like I’m watching the whole cycle of auto safety in action.

Safety Test:
“Charging. Testing will commence in three seconds. 3, 2, 1.”

Stan Alcorn:
You’ve got the new and improved, redesigned X1, and you’ve got this meticulous data-driven evaluation, 39 sensors sending out 10,000 samples a second for the 17 seconds it takes to drag the X1 up to a speed of 40 miles per hour (sound of car crashing) destroying this car in the hopes that maybe it’s next incarnation can be even safer.

Roman Mars:
A couple months later the rating would be announced. The X1 went from marginal to good and it was named “IIHS Top Safety Pick”.

Stan Alcorn:
And this change started with Matt Brumbleow, the safety engineer who found a need for a new kind of crash test by going through government crash data.

Stan Alcorn:
“And in terms of doing the work that you do, how important are these federal databases of real-world car crashes?”

Matt Brumbelow:
“Yeah, they’re really indispensable. Without real crash data, we had just been guessing.”

Roman Mars:
A few years back, the Centers for Disease Control put out a list of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. On the list are vaccines, fluoridated water and motor vehicle safety. Decade after decade, cars keep getting safer because regulators, activists, and the automobile engineers keep looking at how drivers get hurt and finding more things to improve. It’s a never-ending process that always begins with data.

Stan Alcorn:
But it is not a universal process. That hasn’t happened in all industries. While the odds of dying in a car crash have dropped by 80% since the ’60s, the odds of dying from a firearm have actually gone up.

Roman Mars:
As you’ve been listening to this, maybe you’ve been drawing parallels between car safety and gun safety. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. When pundits get together to talk about the latest mass shooting…

Michael Waldman:
“UC Santa Barbara, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, the list grows.”

Roman Mars:
Somebody often brings it up.

Michael Waldman:
“It’s an interesting analogy and it’s actually quite telling.”

Roman Mars:
Legal expert, Michael Waldman.

Michael Waldman:
“You know, we affected who could drive. We lifted the drinking age to 21 so people wouldn’t drive recklessly. We put in airbags. We changed card design. In other words, we changed cars and made them safer. And the question is are there ways to do that also with guns?”

Roman Mars:
Other pundits will rightly make the point that cars and guns are very different. One is designed to help a person get from point A to point B, and the other is specifically designed to injure or kill.

Stan Alcorn:
But to people in the public health field, that’s kind of beside the point. Guns are a major cause of death and injury and whether or not those deaths and injuries are intentional, researchers want to know whether or not they’re preventable. They want to know if a change in gun design or in laws about gun ownership or some other technique we haven’t even thought of yet could cut down on the more than 20,000 gun suicides and more than 10,000 gun homicides that happen each year.

Roman Mars:
Some experts think that the first step could be to treat guns more like cars when it comes to research. For example, public health professor Stephen Teret has called for creating something that does not currently exist, a comprehensive database of deaths like the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, but for guns with data about the victim and perpetrator, whether they’d been drinking, details about the device itself.

Stephen Teret:
We don’t have those data with regards to gun deaths. So now even though the number of motor vehicle-related deaths and gun deaths in the United States are approximately the same every year, we have data for one, but we don’t have data for the other.

Stan Alcorn:
In the ’80s Teret used government crash data to look at airbags and child restraint loss, but then he shifted his focus to guns and the difference was stark. Instead of just downloading government data, he had to gather his own from coroners and police departments.

Roman Mars:
Like a gun safety Hugh DeHaven, only 50 years later.

Stan Alcorn:
It was hard. It was expensive, and some information like specifics about the guns used, he just couldn’t get.

Stephen Teret:
There’s been a culture that’s built up around guns of not collecting information, whereas the exact opposite has occurred with regard to cars.

Stan Alcorn:
“If you had to boil it down, is there a one big thing to point to that explains that difference?”

Stephen Teret:
“Well, yes, there is one big thing and one powerful thing to point to, it’s referred to as the NRA or the National Rifle Association.”

Stan Alcorn:
For every chapter in the history of auto safety, there is an opposite chapter in the history of gun safety, usually written with the help of the NRA. Where advocates of auto safety sued car companies, advocates of gun rights made it nearly impossible to sue gun makers. Congress created a registry of drivers and then made it illegal to create a registry of gun owners. And for each of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the federal government spends each year on auto safety research, gun violence research gets pennies, and Stephen Teret knows all of this. But of all the people I talked to, he was also the most hopeful, which I found kind of hard to understand.

Stan Alcorn:
“What lets you still be optimistic looking at all of those factors?”

Stephen Teret:
“You’re trying your best and you’re doing a fairly good job in making me sink into some swamp of despair, but I’m afraid you’re not going to succeed in that. I’m not going to do it. And one of the reasons that I’m not going to do it is because I understand something about how public health has made progress over the centuries.”

Roman Mars:
He points out that it took more than 50 years to really reduce smoking in this country. And even though some 27,000 lives are now saved each year by technologies like seat belts and airbags, it took decades to get people to even pay attention to car safety. Progress in public health just takes a really long time.

Stephen Teret:
“There’s hardly any examples in public health where someone came up with an idea, everyone rallied around the flag saying, that’s a wonderful idea. Let’s implement it immediately. That’s not how it works.”

Roman Mars:
Instead, it’s a fight to collect the data to identify what we can change. And finally to make the many small incremental modifications that eventually save tens of thousands of lives.

Credits

Production

Reporter Stan Alcorn, from the investigative reporting podcast Reveal, spoke with New York State trooper Frank Bandiero; Amy Gangloff, a historian who studies auto safety; Joan Claybrook, who was head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the Carter administration from 1977 to 1981; safety engineer Matt Brumbelow; dummy engineer Tyler Ayres; legal expert Michael Waldman; and public health professor Stephen Teret. Coda on breakaway post design with Kurt Kohlstedt. A version of this story originally aired on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. Learn more and subscribe at revealnews.org/podcast.

Comments (15)

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  1. Josh

    There’s no comparison between cars and guns.
    Car fatalities are usually accidents. The drivers were being careless, but didn’t intend to kill.
    Gun fatalities are usually intentional. Gun accidents do happen, but are rare.
    You can’t treat these problems both the same way because they are completely different.

    Also, what would be the point in being able to sue gunmakers?

    1. Robert

      * These comments are brought to you by the NRA, “Keeping America Safe”.

    2. NMiller

      Josh, you cannot prove your allegations. How do you determine that “gun accidents…are rare”? There’s woefully thin information about such events, so you are simply guessing and coming up with an answer that makes your point, with insufficient evidence. And the answer to your question about the point in being able to sue gunmakers is actually identical to the ability to sue carmakers–there are design changes that could be made to produce safer guns, such as fingerprint locks, which gunmakers know about but are unwilling to implement or retrofit to existing guns, and the public wants the right to force gunmakers to act. In the case of guns, as the article clearly shows, we don’t know what other changes could be made to make them safer, because the NRA makes sure that no one can gather data or study it. Does it look to you like people are buying fewer cars or having trouble driving them now that we have a government-backed awareness of safety issues? If no, then consider that the gun industry might actually come out on top by becoming strong proponents of the very thing they fear–government regulation and public demands for safety features on guns. If they don’t, the day is very likely to come when they have no choice, as happened with the early car manufacturers. Would you rather being in the lead on such changes, or have them forced upon you?

    1. Will Colley

      Cherrypicking that data I’m guessing you could have a future as a lobbyist or a politician.
      The sources you provided are very sparse with relation to European statistics, and even if they had been complete I’ll assume each country has varied definitions of what is a counted as a vehicle fatality (include pedestrians?) … and that’s in addition to the varied quality of each countries statistics. It does seem clear more affluent and wealthy countries have more (adjusted) road fatalities.
      The UK comparison seems to be especially “choice” as UK seems to have some of the lower (allbeit more thorough statistical data) fatality totals comparatively to other parts of Europe. My hypothesis is that if less affluent countries were “averaged” into European vehicle safety stats, that the differences you elude to would disappear. Then there is the sample size and roadway variables that in inescapable with such a comparison. UK has less variance in climate and geography. UK has about 36M drivers compared to over 210M+ in US.. Sample size! This is where if you want to cherry-pick stats I’ll throw out the safe stats from the 1M drivers in the U.S. state of Rhode Island. These driver would best your UK statistics, but by all means are not average.
      If you were trying to support the idea that driver education is lacking in the USA, I certainly agree, but perhaps better statistical support for such an argument could be provided. I also don’t think UK or EU drivers are immune to similar criticism.

    2. Will Colley

      Sorry… I meant to say the more affluent and wealthy a country in the FEWER (adjusted) roadway fatalities.
      This also goes to support the idea that vehicle safety improves with newer (more expensive) vehicles.

  2. Daniel Keough

    I hope my friends at 99PI are willing to correct this very misleading opening. Crash rates were falling–but the past several years, total deaths by automobile have significantly INCREASED. We’re (back) up to over 40,000 people each year dying due to motor vehicle crashes.

    “2015 Brought Biggest Percent Increase in U.S. Traffic Deaths in 50 Years”
    http://www.newsweek.com/2015-brought-biggest-us-traffic-death-increase-50-years-427759

    “2016 Was the Deadliest Year on American Roads in Nearly a Decade”
    http://fortune.com/2017/02/15/traffic-deadliest-year/

    October 2017:
    “Despite safer cars, traffic fatalities are on the rise”
    http://money.cnn.com/2017/10/06/autos/fatal-traffic-accidents/index.html0

    I know this really change the tone of the story, but I’m hoping you get it right, as you normally do.

    Perhaps an episode into the distractions drivers have where in recent years, those 16 year-olds who start driving have been used to feeding into their cell phone addictions their whole lives as they become new drivers–having their own cell phone for many years, some 10 years or more. Those distractions are a major problem and need to be curtailed, much like drunk driving was tolerated for decades and occasionally enforced we need major shifts in the level of enforcement or even technological answers to block cell phone use while driving.

  3. Daniel Keough

    The fact that many people feel safer IN the cars, may actually make people OUTSIDE of those car LESS SAFE.
    I’ve hear one person, only half-kidding, say that when people drive into a city, entering a 30mph zone, perhaps there should be a warning buzzer that disengages their airbags, un-clips their seatbelts, allowing the driver to slow down and make fewer risky decisions in order to feel safer.
    It puts a whole new perspective on ‘automobile’ safety if we are thinking of the people outside of all of those automobubbles.

  4. Well done another super episdode. But you’re wrong about one thing: there are lots of examples of public health policy making a very rapid u-turn for the better. Such as, over the course of one year people went from coughing into their fists, they coughed into the inside of their elbows. This reduces the transmission of germs (no one’s shaking elbow-pits). That was due to a public health campaign. Also, on the other side, we went from no one getting a flu shot to nearly everyone getting a flu shot in a couple of years.

  5. Ted Dinwiddie

    I liked this episode as far as it went. But you got distracted with guns and completely left out a major aspect of the whole question (both questions, actually). Operator competence is a HUGE factor in car accidents (guns too). Driver training in the US is very poor and many issues can be related to operator error. We tend to blame some external even institutional reason for an incident, when often it could have been avoided altogether by a higher skill level on the part of the operator. We seem to celebrate incompetence these days when instead of holding someone responsible, we try to make the task more fool proof. Remember the old adage: Whenever you try to make something more idiot-proof, the world makes a better idiot. With the high level of automotive engineering these days, if people would concern themselves with improving their skills at operating the machine, we might see better results.

    Guns are a whole quagmire unto themselves.

    1. NMiller

      Ted, recent discoveries in human behavior have shown that many things we might attribute to people being “idiots” are actually enabled by the way our brains work in certain situations. We know that people fail to see the “invisible gorilla” (see Chabris and Simons) who walks right through their line of sight when they are focused on another task, such as navigating or looking for a particular street sign, for example. We also know that talking on a phone, even handsfree, so distracts the brain that reaction times are reduced. Yes, these are problems in how the brain works, but that does not mean that they can only be solved by fixing drivers. We also know that the vast majority of people will rate themselves as “better than average” drivers, even after being told that statistically they have a 50/50 change of being worse than average. This suggests that asking drivers to “concern themselves with improving their skills” will not address the whole problem, since many will consider such improvements unnecessary. Technology exists to silence phones when someone gets into a car. It is not mandatory, not even for new drivers. Other technology can help detect when the car weaves out of a lane, but this only exists on brand new cars. We can help drivers overcome their inadequacies by improving how the car works, and looking for ways to retrofit existing cars with after-market options, perhaps even mandatorily.

  6. jp

    Loved the podcast on the way to work the other day. A very creative blending of multiple related segments about the evolution and success of car safety. It proved to be very timely. In the first 50 seconds of the podcast NY state trooper Frank Bandero advises when faced with a deer crossing your path “the safest thing to do is to slow down as much as you can without being unsafe and drive straight through the animal.” On the way home bambi came out of nowhere in a hurry to get to the afterlife. Our van and human occupants are fine. Thanks Frank & 99PI.

  7. Mark Prasek

    The jump from auto safety to gun safety was weak and disingenuous to say the least. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database recorded auto events at the time of a crash. This is no different than recording gun events at the time of a shooting. Something the NRA does not oppose. It is not at all the same as a “national gun registry” which the NRA does oppose.

    FARS was useful because it documented crash events. Knowing by who and when the auto was bought is not relevant information to auto safety.

    Note: I am not an NRA member and do not own a gun.

  8. Jeb Hoge

    Disconnect the idea of “gun safety” from “gun violence.” Gun safety methodology is codified into a simple, small set of rules, which are easy to teach and reinforce. Gun safety mechanisms (how you operate and maintain a gun) are also simple and highly effective. The more technology you introduce into a system, the more points of failure there are. If you want to stick to the automotive comparisons, consider it the difference between a manual lever parking brake and an electronic parking brake. One of those two isn’t going to work without a battery.

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