This past year, 1998 is likely to be the safest year on record in the history of the automobile. What makes this unusually remarkable is that the major trends that influence fluctuations in fatality and fatality rate trends all suggest that we should be experiencing a significant increase in highway fatalities. That is not the case. In actuality, according to an October 1998 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatalities have decreased by about 1.8% from the previous year.
A booming economy, low unemployment, and incredibly cheap fuel prices are individually harbingers of increased highway accidents and fatalities. In combination, they almost guarantee more travel, more accidents, and more injuries and fatalities. That this is not the case is quite amazing, but not unexplainable.
Organizations that prophesized catastrophe when the federal 55 mph speed limit was repealed have made a career of trying to put together combinations of data that prove higher speed limits are responsible for greater numbers of fatalities on our better highways. They gloss over some very important considerations; the higher limits attract more traffic to the safer highways and away from the less safe highways. There has also been an incremental increase in the miles of limited access divided highways. With more traffic and more miles of highway it only stands to reason that there will be more fatalities on limited access divided highways. The less obvious consequence is that the increase in fatalities on the major highways is far exceeded by the reduction in fatalities on the more dangerous secondary highway system.
Despite the extra deaths and injuries caused by mandated airbags, other automotive safety measures such as better brakes, lights, traction devices, and crash absorbing construction are making modern vehicles safer and more reliable. Add to these advancements the continual upgrading of existing highways and the expansion of limited access divided highways and the reasons for highway safety improvements becomes more obvious.
Despite the shrill proclamations of safety organizations, contorted "studies" by the insurance industry, and inflammatory creations like "Road Rage" and "Aggressive Drivers," 1998 is likely to be the safest year on record for American motorists and their fellow travelers.