It couldn’t be that drivers have become better!

Unless they’re old:

Highway deaths have plummeted to their lowest levels in more than 60 years, helped by more people wearing seat belts, better safety equipment in cars and efforts to curb drunken driving…

“Too many of our friends and neighbors are killed in preventable roadway tragedies every day,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We will continue doing everything possible to make cars safer, increase seat belt use, put a stop to drunk driving and distracted driving and encourage drivers to put safety first.”

Emphasis mine.

Take a look at that article. It mentions a number of factors which have contributed to the decrease in highway deaths, but it never goes through hoops to make sure we all know that it isn’t because drivers have become better. In fact, the part I put in bold says it all: In addition to safety measures that are independent of the people behind the wheel, drivers are putting safety first. In other words, people are more aware and cautious, i.e., better drivers. But that wasn’t the case when the article was about teens:

“It’s not that teens are becoming safer,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based research group funded by auto insurance companies.

“It’s that state laws enacted in the last 15 years are taking teens out of the most hazardous driving situations,” such as driving at night or with other teens in the car, he said.

In fact, it’s likely teens today are better drivers than teens of past generations. All the laws that are in place do get followed by most teens, whether people want to admit it or not. Even if it only happens once they get caught the first time, they are still following these laws for most of their teenage driving careers. That, by frickin’ definition, makes them better drivers. We can say the same thing about everyone else as well.

The only difference is that no one seems to want to say it.

36 Responses

  1. I have qualms with the articles assertion that safety equipment made a contribution here. It gives no concrete numbers and it is presented by officials with nothing to back it up.

    Anyone who studies risk quickly learns seat belts, anti-lock brake systems and airbags create a moral hazard – drivers take more risks and drive more dangerously when they know they have a safety net to catch them. This has undermined most of the gains from this equipment by changing human behavior.

  2. Thus is one reason for government regulation – it saves lives, regardless if the people who rant and scream for less regulation- screw those nincompoops.

    There have been plenty of studies in the past that seat belts and other equipment save lives – go look it up (other) Michael

  3. Nader is responsible for safer driving not corporate america who hates him because he cut into their profit margin.

    My grandson is learning to drive taking a course in high school….I’m really impressed by the depth and breadth of the course which emphasizes safe driving…..these courses are are great and I believe are helping teens to be better drivers. Of course you wont get insurance companies to recoginize this…it would cut into the profits they make.

  4. Paul, in some areas, the high schools that had driver ed cut it out due to budget reasons and then tell the students to go to commercial driver ed schools. I have seen what some of those ‘schools’ teach and it is a joke.

    Another example of how the common weal does it far better than for-profit. It is a huge fallacy that things are always done better by profit driven companies.

  5. As a person opening a commercial drivers ed school, I assure you it isn’t the case in Maine Bob. The state is hyper vigilant on content and quality.

    The incentive of profit does in many, perhaps even most cases, lead to better everything. There are notable exceptions. Drivers ed is certainly not one of them.

    If a state has made the choice to license school and haven’t provided the curriculum than what exactly are you using as a baseline to determine if they are better or not? The schools would react to the vacuum by tossing in stuff to fill the time, a business might not. If the state isn’t doing their part than it is hardly a businesses fault that they are providing a crappy product, just as the state has mandated.

  6. Seat belts save lives when someone is in an accident, Bob. That’s why I always wear mine. I don’t think you understand the point is that they change human behavior.

  7. So many fallacies. I am too busy to bother. I do like the way you rely on the state to control the quality.


    This is a scientific issue – not a political one. I am not stating that seat belts should not be used or that they’re useless – I am saying there is some good research to suggest that the changes in driving behavior eats away most of the safety gains. This is an emperical question – which effect is more powerful: the decrease in accident mortality or the increase in risky driving.

  9. The state says you must have ______ to be issued a license. If they require drivers ed and give no guidelines than what kind of quality do you expect? Fantastic over here, and garbage over here, and everyone is doing it right.

    The state is the one making the requirement, at least in Maine its not overly oppressive regulation wise and the requirements to be licensed to teach and issue permits are pretty reasonable as well.

    That’s why I would say that yes, the state needs to set the basic guidelines to ensure quality.

    Retired people aren’t busy, bob, crazyness!

  10. Michael, the evidence you’ve cited points to seat belts lowering highway deaths. Even if there was a causative link between seat belt use and riskier behavior, the point with which you raised qualms still stands – and by your own links. Highway deaths have been lowered because of better safety standards, including mandatory seat belt use in many states.

  11. I’m not a fan of mandatory use laws. I don’t think its anyone’s business if I’m wearing my seat belt or not. For me I find it distracting and uncomfortable, probably making me a worse driver when I have the thing on.

    Why doesn’t the government mandate brushing your teeth or mandatory daily exercise?

    Mandate seat belts for those under 18, but who’s business is it really when you are an adult?

  12. Like I said before, it’s an empirical question. Its entirely possible the increased safety from the devices more than offsets the changes in driving behavior. However, I don’t know how you got what you did from the links I provided. Here is one:

    “Sam found that mandatory seat belts did indeed cause more accidents. But this effect was roughly the same as the effect in the opposite direction, that accidents were less harmful. So the net number of fatalities of drivers was unaffected by the law. Sam found some evidence that the effect of the law might be to reduce driver fatalities. Unfortunately, because drivers were more reckless, there were more accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists. So their death rate due to cars increased. Total deaths were unchanged.”

  13. Mandate seat belts for those under 18, but who’s business is it really when you are an adult?

    Driving a car is a privilege, not a right. One needs to register the vehicle, get it inspected and have a proper driver license. You use public road to drive on. If you screw up, the police, fire dept and ambulance may have to get involved. There are few rights here. If you don’t like wearing a seat belt, you have the right to NOT drive or ride in a car.

  14. Too bad we have all this data showing that, gasp!, death rates have fallen.

  15. If you don’t like the fact that gays can’t marry in Maine, too bad, its a privilege not a right.

    Is it not the same argument?

    If I crash my car, the police, ambulances and fire trucks are likely to show up anyways, bob. If anything my not wearing a seat belt would involve fewer costs as I am more likely to die.

    That particular condition tends not to require expensive medical attention.

  16. If you don’t like the fact that gays can’t marry in Maine, too bad, its a privilege not a right.

    No, not even close to being similar. Comparing driving on a public road to who one lives one life with in the bedroom is ludicrous.

    One is a licensed privilege and the other is a freedom guaranteed by the constitution.

    The only objection to gay marriage is religious objections.
    I guess saying any nonsense that comes along is some people’s modus operandi.

  17. I don’t see marriage as being defined, required or guaranteed by the constitution. Marriage has nothing to do with what happens in your bedroom either.

    Sorry for bringing it up, the ‘right’ vs ‘privilege’ just seemed like a familiar discussion and thus relevant in passing.

  18. Come on Michael, are you really that sloppy tonight? Data showing death rates have fallen do not contradict anything here. It’s the cause that is the question.

  19. You study found a correlation between seat belts and deaths based upon a hypothesis that works into that correlation. Reality has found a correlation between seat belts and fewer deaths, which is backed up by decades of testing seat belt safety in the lab. The correlation found in your links fits better with the overwhelming evidence government testing has produced. Your anti-regulation bias fails again.

  20. This has NOTHING to do with regulation. Zero. A moral hazard is when people insulted from risk make riskier actions – it doesn’t matter if they insult themselves willingly or if that risk is taken away through regulation.

    No one is disagreeing that seat belts protect people once they are in a car accident. The controversial point I’ve brought up is that people get in more accidents when they have seat belts, and this effect diminishes SOME gains from the safety device. I am not arguing risk homeostasis, I am saying the safety devices are probably not the top factor in reducing automobile deaths.

    You seem unwilling or unable to grasp that I am making a point about human behavior, and assumed incorrectly that I am making some unrelated political point about enforcing safety equipment. For a science blogger, you appear completely unwilling to consider empirical, well-entrenched evidence simply because it contradicts your assumptions. Show this thread to anyone who’s scientifically literate and ask if they can tell the difference.

  21. Insult should be “insulate”

  22. More on the rights of marriage:

  23. The controversial point I’ve brought up is that people get in more accidents when they have seat belts, and this effect diminishes SOME gains from the safety device. I am not arguing risk homeostasis, I am saying the safety devices are probably not the top factor in reducing automobile deaths.

    but your citations above are weak and compared to the hundreds of studies that disagree with your premise, your argument is very weak.

  24. Again, you do not understand. How do you define these citations as weak, and perhaps you could share one of these studies that disproves moral hazard effects.

  25. How about an extreme case of moral hazard?

    Parachutes made flying safer.

    They also cause people to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.

    Furthermore as the parachutes themselves become safer and more reliable, skydivers take more risks. The skydiving rate of death has actually increased as safety has improved.

    Are you trying to say, Bob, that no one drives faster or more recklessly given the massively safer vehicles? I have never seen any study that purported to show that. So if we accept that, we must accept that seat belts cause some accidents.

  26. So if we accept that, we must accept that seat belts cause some accidents.

    But it is not significant compared to the lives it saves and the reduction to injury as shown in so many studies.

    Personal anecdote:

    In 1967 I was driving a car with a passenger at 30 mph on an icy road. Cars had no seat belts then. We skidded on the ice and ran into the back of an empty short school bus parked at the curb. My chin hit the steering wheel and snapped it. My buddy jolted forward and his knee hit the dash and his head went into the windshield. I had to have stitches inside one cheek and he had stitches on his knee and lost part of one ear lobe. If we had seat belts and wore them we would not have been hurt.

  27. I’m confused by the discussion here. Statisitcs show people are driving more safely (as measured by death rates) and safety devices do save lives (seat belts and air bages).
    I know I am driving more safely as I am now down to 60 MPH from 80 MPH on the Maine Tpke to save on gas and I do not wear a seatbelt. Do I need a study that shows the death rate comparison between driving at 60 vs. 80 and wearing seat belts to back up my claim that I am a more safe driver????

  28. There are numerous studies that show the death rates are higher in states with lower seat belt usage than in those states with higher seat belt usage. The evidence is clear except to those who try to undermine government by trying to bullshit their way to less regulation

  29. That’s a great question Paul. There is a flaw in predicting the incidence rate of a problem by it’s mortality rate.

    A few months ago the Skeptics Guide to the Universe covered a study that showed suntan lotion’s effectiveness is compromised because people spend more time in the sun after being lathered up. You see the same thing with boxing gloves and field hockey helmets – in certain scenarios safety gear can cause people to make riskier choices.

    Bob and M. Hawkins are grasping onto the belief that I am anti-seatbelt (I wear mine every time) and I am trying to argue about government regulations. I am doing no such thing..

    I am simply stating that safety equipment that protects people from harm changes their behavior. I don’t see why that’s such a sore subject here.

  30. A few months ago the Skeptics Guide to the Universe covered a study that showed suntan lotion’s effectiveness is compromised …

    Apples and oranges. Irrelevant for all three analogies.

    And Michael is under the erroneous assumption than anyone here says the risk factor has no dampening effect.

    This has gotten so inane. I am unsubscribing.

  31. Michael – I fully understand what you’re saying. I get the surface argument you’re presenting. What I’m saying is that your erection for immature libertarianism is your motivation here. The reason that must be the case is that your links draw weak correlations which conflict with all the other evidence which points to safer overall driving conditions. The fact that you’ve attempted to slip a strawman in here by implying that anyone is saying that seat belts are the top factor in reducing automobile deaths is indicative of the weakness of your (anti-regulation) position. In fact, if you follow the link to the article about teenagers you’ll see that it cites a number of factors; I agreed with those factors. Then if you pop back over to this post you’ll see that the cited article here also mentions numerous factors. Scroll down a tad and you’ll see me 1) not disagreeing with those factors and 2) pointing to better laws contributing to safer driving. In that instance I was talking about driving laws and their effect on improved driving, but I could have also pointed to better laws in car manufacturing.

    Bob and M. Hawkins are grasping onto the belief that I am anti-seatbelt

    Strawman #2. I read where you said you wear your seat belt. That has no bearing on you being anti-regulation because of your libertarian ideology.

  32. Bob unsubscribing = thread improvement.

    M Hawkins, I think you have a complete knee-jerk reaction to defend regulation even when it isn’t being questioned. I realize you have contempt for libertarianism, but I find it completely irrelevant as this is not a political issue. How do you claim to know my inter most thoughts and motivations? I think you’re so used to dealing with creationists and alt med cranks that you’re unprepared for legitimate scientific claims that challenge your beliefs. But then again, I can’t see into your head either.

    I’m glad you’ve learned your logical fallacies, but you throw around the terms so much. Strawman” is not a word you can throw around lightly with any meaning.

    The ironic part is I started this thread agreeing with your post. I am completely open to the idea that stronger laws could be responsible. If you look at the links, the claims of safety equipment’s impact do not adjust for the Peltzman Effect. I said that the safety equipment was probably not a large factor in the overall mortality rates. Telling is that there have not been any major advances in safety equipment in a decade. I don’t understand the complete hostility to a complementary view, and I don’t think immature nerdrage is the best public behavior of someone who wants to stand up for science.

  33. I see legitimate correlations which contradict the already well established facts. I can deal with that quite easily. It’s dismissible – unless you just want to argue against common sense because it results in regulations.

    Oh, I don’t know what a strawman is? Can you quote where I said seat belts are the top reason for the decline in highway deaths? Or did you just make that up? Are you ready to admit as much? If not, I eagerly await the quote.

    The ironic part is I started this thread agreeing with your post.

    First, the point of my post is the disparity between how people talk about teens versus older individuals. I see Paul, Bob, and Nate touching on this, but not you. Second, you started this thread by saying safety standards not only have no evidence to back up their overall efficacy, but that you do not believe they have contributed to fewer highway deaths. Flying in face of all the evidence, you cited two correlative studies which aren’t even able to adequately apply their hypotheses to real life statistics. I don’t see where you said you agreed with me.

  34. Did you drop your toast jam-side down again?

    Perhaps you could scroll up and read what I wrote. This is pretty simply to fix – show me one quote where I referenced regulation. Here was my first sentence:

    “I have qualms with the articles assertion that safety equipment made a contribution here.”

    I think what happened is you misread the word “equipment” and thought it said standards or regulations. I am talking about technology and human behavior, not laws, and I have been this entire time.

    Like I said before, show my ONE QUOTE where I commented on regulation.

  35. I’ve been talking about your general bias; you were even on board when you asked how I know your inner most thoughts and motivations. That is, you appeared to recognize that I was talking about your views in general and how they are affecting your arguments here, not anything you specifically said. In fact, when I specifically said your motivation here must be libertarianism (since the evidence doesn’t back you up), you replied that your motivation is not relevant. Again, that was you getting on board with the fact that I was talking about your general views, not anything you specifically said.

    Now that we’ve cleared that up, I’m waiting for where I said seat belts are the top reason for fewer highway deaths. And while you’re at it, you can tell me where I said you are anti-seat belt.

    P.s., As I’ve mentioned rhetoric here and there lately, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge yours: Instead of answering my request, you responded with a request of your own. That in itself is okay, but tends to be transparent dodging. But there is a good part: by challenging me in a way which I can not meet, you are able to seemingly corner me. Instead of giving you a short and direct answer, I had to take time to explain why your challenge was bunk in the first place. That makes for some decent rhetoric because people rarely remember the more lengthy responses in the middle of a debate or discussion.

  36. Fair enough on the PS. I did not say that you believe seat belts where the top of the list, remember I said I agree with your original post.

    Here is a specific quote from you

    “Second, you started this thread by saying safety standards not only have no evidence to back up their overall efficacy”

    Note the word “Standard” and not “equipment.”

    An earlier quote was “Your anti-regulation bias fails again.”

    Your first paragraph still doesn’t ad up. I am not trying to suggest that I have a political motivation – infact, I’ve said quite the opposite. This is about reality. It doesn’t matter one bit here if the safety equipment comes from regulation or from a capitalist origin – such as a safety device invented to make a product more competitive. From my earlier example of sun tan lotion, there is no law forcing people to wear sun screen, and the same effect is happening.

    I have an interest in human behavior and I mistakenly went into this thread initially thinking this is something you and I would agree on, but you’ve had an automatic reaction and tried to turn this into something political.

    To me, this is no different from my own March 12th post where I criticized a Republican politician for trying to force abortion doctors to tell patients there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. My focus was not on the attempt to pass a stupid regulation requiring doctors to tell a speech to patients – my focus was on the bad science claiming the link. The link is false, and that was more important for me.

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