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Should highway safety boosters celebrate gains, or move ahead?

December 07, 1999

Thanks to television news coverage that shows the terrible aftermath of highway accidents, it may seem as if the roads are not as safe as they used to be. Not so in Pensylvania, where highway deaths have dropped in the last 30 years.

But safety advocates still feel they can push the figures lower, and their proposals for legislation seem likely to lower the death rate without putting a severe burden on the motoring public.

The analysis of road death figures came courtesy of the Greensburg, Pa. Tribune-Review, which found that in 1968, there were 4.3 people killed for every 100,000 miles traveled. In 1989, the figure had dropped to 2.4 and by last year it had fallen to 1.5, below the national average of 1.6.

The improvement in safety came even though the average driver is logging twice as many miles as in 1968, and though there are almost 4 million more vehicles registered in the state than there were 30 years ago.

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Researchers say there's no single answer accounting for the drop, although new collision-safe guardrails are now routinely used along highways and the campaign by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers has, over a period of years, made intoxicated driving less than socially acceptable.

Is that enough? Should safety advocates back off, or press ahead with new measures designed to save even more lives?

MADD isn't ready to back off, and recommends lowering the state's legal blood-alcohol limit from .10 to .08. MADD also wants police empowered to stop vehicles in which drivers and passengers aren't wearing seat belts. Gov. Tom Ridge supports the blood-alcohol measure, but is undecided on the seat-belt issue, saying it's a "civil liberties issue."

We'd take that view, too, if those who didn't buckle up prior to a crash were ruled ineligible for state-funded rescue service and/or medical care. However, those who are hurt in an accident expect the best care. Requiring them to protect themselves with seat belts is just one more way of giving it to them.

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