Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Seat belts have saved more than a quarter million lives

December 12, 2011 - 11:45 AM
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Life-saver. (Photo: flickr/goodgerster)

Our streets are dangerous places, but recent news suggests that, on a national scale, they're becoming less dangerous all the time. I wrote about these traffic-fatality trends last week here, pointing out the unfortunate statistic that more people have died on the road in the District this year than last so far. 32,885 lives were lost in traffic in 2010 throughout the country.

In the course of researching traffic fatalities, I  found federal analysis of traffic fatalities released earlier this fall that broke down the 2009 traffic fatalities by a number of factors, from the causes of fatal crashes to the ages of drivers killed to variations in blood alcohol level of people involved in fatal crashes and the makes of the vehicle. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System General Estimates System report makes for fascinating reading and I recommend it to anyone curious about our transportation deaths. From that report I identified the 13 biggest factors that caused car crashes — the first, it turns out, is speeding, and the second is drunk driving.

One of the most fascinating sections — and one generally more optimistic than bleak — was the last: "Lives Saved, 1975-2009."

This final section of the report outlined how technology (child restraints, seat belts, airbags, and motorcycle helmets) has saved people from dying in the last 34 years and specifies how many lives it could have saved if usage was at 100% capacity. The numbers are rather unimpressive in the early years of the chart. In 1975, for instance, fewer than 1,000 American lives were saved by the seat belt while more than 13,000 could have been saved if they'd worn them.

But in 1977, the Carter administration mandated seat belts and airbags for every car be installed by 1983. The number of lives saved by the seat belt began to dramatically increase, even doubling every year for a part of the 1980s. In the early years of the past decade, wearing a seat belt had saved as many as 15,000 lives a year. Law enforcement agencies encouraged the behavior and launched "Click It or Ticket" campaigns. In 2009, the government reports that 12,713 lives were saved. But 3,688 people still died, people who conceivably would have lived that year if they had been wearing theirs.

And how many lives in total has the seat belt saved since 1975? 267,890 lives. More than a quarter million.

This piece of technology is by far the most effective and impressive life-saver on the list of devices. Child restraints have saved around 10,000 lives, and full-frontal airbags have saved around 30,000. The statistic is striking and encouraging and a partial explanation for why traffic fatalities have begun falling nation-wide throughout recent years.

The seat belt is truly a simple device — a long plastic band and a buckle. But simple inventions change how we navigate our roads all the time. Our transportation world wouldn't be the same without it, especially when you consider the possibility of a quarter-million additional traffic fatalities that could have occurred throughout the last three-and-a-half decades.

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