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Peeling Back the Layers of Safety Statistics

Lies, damned lies, and safety statistics.

by on Apr.20, 2009

The data say U.S. highways are safer than ever, but there are lies, damned lies, and safety statistics.

The data say U.S. highways are safer than ever, but there are lies, damned lies, and safety statistics.

We the motorists of America have been preening ourselves the last few weeks because of the good news about significantly reduced carnage on our highways.  And that’s as it should be: safety belt usage is up, drunken driving is down, cars and highways are safer, and-critically-people are driving less.

Among the facts cited by Obama’s new Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, in his April 6 announcement for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was this: “The nation also saw the lowest fatality rate ever recorded in 2008 at 1.28 fatalities per hundred million vehicle miles traveled, down from 1.36 in 2007.”

Now I can’t hold Secretary LaHood accountable for these numbers; I’d be willing to bet that if he bothered to check the numbers before he signed off on the NHTSA news release put in front of him for approval, he was told the fatality rate came from a brother federal agency, the Federal Highway Agency (FHWA).  The FHWA is the government agency that since the 1940s has been supplying Washington and the nation with vehicle miles traveled (VMT) which are used for a whole host of government actions-highway expenditure allocations, environmental estimates of emissions (“tons per mile”) and fatality rates.

Subscribe to TheDetroitBureau.comThe fatality rate in particular is used to compare the U.S. experience with that of other countries, as reported through the International Road Traffic Accident Data Base (IRTAD).  It also tells us, in a pseudo-scientific way, what our report card is on highway safety, better than the raw number of fatalities which is affected by a whole lot of factors including weather, enforcement and, well, luck.

So what? you are wondering.