Motor vehicle safety

Considering the physical size of the United States, where people regularly travel over large distances for recreation and as a means of getting to work, it is not surprising that dependence on the automobile has become so prevalent. There is something fundamentally appealing about traveling in a vehicle that allows for sudden changes in plans and routine.

Driving is as likely to provide headaches as pleasure, however, depending onwhether one happens to be speeding along on an the open-road or stuck in a traffic jam. But above all, driving can also be, and frequently is, fatal.

In 1997, 41,967 people died in highway accidents in this country, down slightly from the previous year. In addition, motor vehicle accidents cost more than $150 billion every year in medical, rehabilitation and long-term care costs, lost productivity, lost tax revenue, property damage, and police, judicial,and social service costs. In light of these facts, it is quite surprising that highway safety expenses account for only one percent of the budget of theU.S. Department of Transportation.

Alcohol impairment is the leading factor in automobile fatalities. In 1997, alcohol was a factor in 39 percent of all fatal traffic crashes. The second most important problem was excessive speed, which contributed to approximatelyone-third of all fatal crashes.

In an attempt to make driving safer, automobile manufacturers have added seatbelts, shoulder straps, headrests, air-bags, padded dashes, safety glass, collapsible steering columns, controlled crush characteristics, anti-lock breaks, and many other improvements to new vehicles. In addition, improvements in highway construction have led to a decrease in the number accidents and deathsamong drivers. Stricter enforcement of drunk-driving laws have removed manyintoxicated drivers from the road.

The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety organization suggests the followingtips for safe driving. First, make sure you are clear-headed before you getbehind the wheel. Alcohol and drugs (including prescription drugs), can severely impair your ability to drive. Pay attention to the labels on the bottlesof any medications you are taking. If a label says the medication you are taking causes drowsiness, don't drive. Consult your doctor or pharmacist if youhave any questions. Make sure you have had a good night's rest. Always designate another driver or select an alternate means of transportation if you arein doubt about your ability to drive safely. Try not to drive alone when youare tired. Driving when accompanied by a passenger can increase your alertness. Driving while sleep-deprived at night can increase your chances of a crash. Plan your trips ahead of time. Give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination, allowing for emergencies and traffic jams. By planning ahead, youwill be more relaxed when operating your vehicle. You will also be less likely to experience road rage, or feel the need for excessive speeding, tailgating, or weaving between cars.

When you shop for a new car, research the safety performance of the vehicle you are thinking about buying. Find out how the vehicle performs in crash tests. Look for side-impact air bags. If you are shopping for a used vehicle, look for one with air bags. Buy a safe vehicle to protect you and your family inthe event of a collision. When you are in the driver's seat, be relaxed. Bealert to signs of fatigue; if you start to feel tired while driving, pull over and let someone else drive. Always follow common sense safety rules, beingsure to use seat belts and other restraints. Always keep your eyes on the road, and make sure any important items such as directions and maps, sunglasses,etc. are in easy reach before you set out, and be sure to pull over to a safe place before you attempt to use a cellular telephone.

Although there are 18.1 auto-related deaths per 100,000 people for all ages in this country, male drivers between 15 and 24 years of age have 48.2 auto-related deaths per 100,000 population, a rate that is 2 1/2 times the nationalaverage. The rate for female drivers between 15 and 24 years of age is 18.4 auto-related deaths per 100,000 population, or approximately the national average. These figures suggest that young male drivers stand to gain the most from adopting safer driving habits. According to automobile insurance companies,teenage driving deaths frequently occur after dark, in the presence of passengers other than family members, after using alcohol, and during recreationaluse of the automobile.

Experts point out a number of precautions that the male teenage driver can and should take to increase his safety on the road.

First, he should take a driver's education course; these courses have been demonstrated to decrease the frequency of accidents among those that have takenthem. For the first 3 to 6 months after obtaining his driver's license, theteenager should not drive alone; he should not carry passengers; and he should avoid driving after dark. Above all, he should become knowledgeable about the effects of alcohol.

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