Over the years, New York State Police Sgt. Dan Larkin has seen a lot of terrible car crashes.
But today, those terrible crashes are a lot less likely to be fatal, thanks to stricter traffic safety laws, safer roads and safer vehicles.
“All of the troopers on patrol have had the experience of rolling up to a car accident scene, seeing people standing on the side of the road and a couple of cars in the bushes and thinking they’ve got to get an ambulance and that there’s probably a fatality,” said Larkin, who serves as traffic supervisor for Troop G in Latham. “And then you find out that the people standing on the side of the road were inside the car.”
Even as the overall number of vehicle accidents in New York has remained fairly stable, the number of fatalities has steadily declined.
“There are many reasons for the drop in fatal crashes over the years,” Nicholas Cantiello, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said in an email. “Everything from rumble strips to better engineered roadways, to air bags and better engineered vehicles, to enforcement programs such as STOP-DWI and Click It or Ticket, to educational campaigns focusing on distracted or drowsy driving. All of these things combined contribute to reducing highway fatalities.”
“Cars are so much safer,” he said, while increased seat belt use has probably played the biggest role in reducing motor vehicle deaths.
“In the late 1990s, only about 75 percent of people used seat belts,” he said. “Today, the use rates are over 90 percent in New York.”
New York’s seat belt law requires front-seat passengers of all ages to use seat belts, and back-seat passengers younger than 16 to use seat belts. Larkin believes requiring all back-seat passengers to use seat belts would save even more lives.
“If you’re not wearing a seat belt in the back seat, you’re at greater risk of being killed,” he said.
Eric Stigberg, a spokesman for AAA Northway, said there’s been a major shift in thinking when it comes to car accidents.
“Car crashes used to be accepted as just kind of what happens,” he said. “Now, they’re viewed as more of a public health issue.”
In 1987, 2,328 people were killed in motor-vehicle accidents in New York, and 288,350 people were injured, according to state DMV statistics. But by 1997, deaths from vehicle accidents had dropped about 29 percent, to 1,630, and the number of people injured had also declined, to 280,871, a 2.5 percent drop. Over the next decade, the number of people killed in vehicle accidents dropped 19 percent, to 1,317, while 194,255 were injured, a 30 percent drop. In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics were available, 1,153 people were killed in vehicle accidents, while 177,445 people were injured.
Overall, the number of people killed in motor-vehicle accidents dropped 50 percent, while the number of people injured dropped 38 percent.
What hasn’t necessarily changed is the number of vehicle accidents that occur each year. In recent years, the number of accidents has ticked upward. In 1987, there were 303,809 motor-vehicle accidents in New York, while in 2011, there were 307,550 accidents, according to the DMV.
“There’s about the same amount of crashes,” said Jacqueline Gillan, president of the Washington group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
She noted that car ownership and driving have increased over the years.
“The number of driver’s licenses is higher,” she said.
In January, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety released its 10th annual report card grading states on their performance on 15 recommended basic traffic safety laws. According to the report, New York is tops in the nation for traffic safety laws, followed by the District of Columbia, Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey and North Carolina. The report assesses states based on laws regarding booster seats, impaired driving and motorcycle helmets.
Gillan said New York is deficient in one area: graduated licensing. Her organization advocates restricting full licenses to those 18 and older; right now, New York’s 17-year-old drivers can receive full licenses if they complete a driver education course. Graduated licensing places greater restrictions on young drivers. Teen drivers are more likely to get into accidents, largely because of their inexperience and what experts call “distractibility.”
Larkin said New York has been a leader when it comes to traffic safety laws.
“Our STOP-DWI law is a model for the nation,” he said. “It’s been extremely effective at driving down the drunk-driving numbers.”
Improvements in child passenger safety systems and laws requiring use of booster seats have also helped reduce deaths and injuries, he said.
Gillan said safety improvements such as airbags, combined with increased seat belt use, have saved countless lives.
“During the Carter administration, just 30 percent of people were buckling up,” she said. “When I was growing up, nobody was using seat belts.”
Tough laws on drunken driving, along with education and enforcement of those laws, have also helped.
Gillan warned the progress states have made in improving traffic safety is at risk. Last year, only 10 state highway safety laws were enacted nationwide, compared to 16 in 2011 and 22 in 2010.
Data indicate traffic fatalities might be on the rise nationally. Preliminary statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate 2012 saw the largest jump in traffic fatalities since 1975, with crash deaths increasing 7.1 percent during the first nine months of the year, compared to the first nine months of 2011. In 2011, 29,757 people were killed in motor-vehicle accidents in the U.S., according to the NHTSA. In 2001, 37,862 people were killed.
These figures represent progress, though. In 1973, nearly 55,000 people died in motor-vehicle accidents.
Stigberg said driving tends to decline during recessions and rise when the economy improves. He said the uptick in traffic fatalities might stem from the fact that more people are on the road today than during the Great Recession, when people curtailed driving to save money.
Larkin said new challenges are always emerging when it comes to traffic safety. The latest issue, he said, is the “distracted driving” that results from using cellphones and other gadgets while driving. Text messaging behind the wheel is becoming a greater concern.
Drunken driving is down, but impaired driving as a result of prescription drug use is on the rise, he said.
Gillan and other highway safety advocates believe more can be done to reduce the number of motor vehicle deaths.
“We’re at about 33,000 deaths and 2 million injuries nationwide,” Gillan said. “That’s a lot of deaths and injuries. By any measure, that’s a public health epidemic.”
Most motor vehicle deaths are the result of human behavior, such as speeding or drinking, Larkin said.
“Nearly all motor vehicle deaths are preventable,” he said. “That’s the sad part.”
Lt. Mark McCracken, a spokesman for the Schenectady Police Department, said most of the fatal accidents that occur in the city involve a vehicle striking a pedestrian or bicyclist.
According to data from the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee, there were nine fatal motor-vehicle accidents in Schenectady County in 2011, and 981 non-fatal personal injury crashes.
Motorcycle deaths have been on the rise, according to NHTSA data. In 2011, 4,612 motorcyclists were killed in the U.S., compared to 3,197 in 2001 and 2,320 in 1994.
“Motorcycle safety is a growing problem,” Larkin said, noting that the mid-1990s saw a boom in motorcycle sales and a corresponding rise in motorcycle deaths.
He recommended that motorcyclists wear bright clothing to make themselves more visible to other drivers and also wear the safest helmet possible.
“We’ve seen a proliferation of novelty helmets,” he said.
Under New York law, motorcyclists are required to wear helmets.