A case of government getting it right


It has become fashionable to believe that government can’t do a blessed thing right.

And, indeed, if you listen to talk radio or spend a lot of time in the blogosphere, you are probably convinced that every government regulation is foolish and every government employee a meddling nincompoop.

But we are reminded from time to time that many government efforts pay big dividends.

One reminder came late last week when it was announced that total U.S. traffic deaths have declined to their lowest level since 1954.

Sure, this was partly the result of the recession. On the other hand, traffic fatalities have been steadily declining — with a few small exceptions — for the past 25 years.

This is particularly amazing when you consider that the number of licensed vehicles in the U.S. has increased from about 70 million in 1960 to more than 250 million today, and that the number of passenger car miles driven has tripled during that period.

This certainly isn’t because we have all become more skilled and attentive drivers. Not by a long shot.

When you look at the reasons, you see that there have been specific government initiatives behind most.

Older Americans no doubt remember the legislative battles over seatbelts, first in the 1960s and then in the 1980s.

In the late 1950s, American car makers began offering lap belts as optional equipment in their vehicles. But New York became the first state to require them in cars in 1960, and by 1964 23 states had done the same.

At that point, automakers made them standard equipment.

In 1984, New York became the first state to require that passengers actually wear the seat belts, and other states began to follow suit.

But the seat belt requirement was controversial and widely resented by Americans who felt the belts were restrictive and actually argued they could be dangerous.

Remember the old argument about being “thrown clear” of a crash rather than being trapped in a wrecked car? You don’t hear that one much anymore.

Then there has been the long-standing government effort to better engineer roads and highways.

The introduction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s was a tremendous boost to safety.  Since then, road construction techniques and standards have made travel much safer.

Then there has been the spectacularly successful legislative effort to get drunk drivers off the roads. Tougher laws, better enforcement and public education campaigns have steadily reduced the number of drunk driving fatalities.

Remember when people used to say “one for the road?” Today, it’s more like “none for the road.”

To be fair, automotive engineers deserve much of the credit for building safer cars.

Front and side air bags, disc brakes, anti-lock brakes, front and side airbags, crumple zone chassis, collapsing steering columns, padded automotive interiors — all have made vehicles safer.

As a result, tens of thousands of families have been spared the anguish of losing a loved one in an auto accident.  Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been saved from serious or disabling injuries.

Of course, 33,963 highway deaths per year is still a terrible toll. However, without decades of effort — by government and industry — things would be much worse.

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