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Editorial: All of us have a role in making roads safer

Jan. 03, 2013 @ 11:30 PM

In recent years, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky all have made strides in reducing the number of people killed on their roads. Yet, the record for 2012 shows that continuing that general trend line won't be easy.

Preliminary data shows that traffic fatalities in Ohio and Kentucky rose in 2012 compared with the year before, by 4 and 2.4 percent, respectively. The number of deaths in West Virginia dropped slightly, by 1.8 percent, but the Mountain State continues to have a far-higher-than-average fatality rate based on population, as does Kentucky.

Altogether, more than 2,100 people died on those three states' roadways last year. The truly sad aspect of the death toll is that many of those people might have lived if drivers had been more responsible by not mixing alcohol with driving and by taking well-known safety precautions.

Consider the use of safety equipment. In Kentucky last year, data shows that 55 percent of the people killed in motor vehicle accidents were not wearing a seat belt, while more than half of motorcyclists and 85 percent of ATV riders who were killed were not wearing a helmet. A breakdown of 2012 statistics was not available in Ohio and West Virginia. But in 2011, about half of passenger vehicle deaths in those two states involved people not wearing seat belts.

Yet, according to AAA, people who wear seat belts have a 45 percent better chance of surviving a serious traffic accident and a 50 percent better chance of surviving without severe injuries. That message has been driven home through public education campaigns for decades, yet far too many people continue to ignore it. The same is true for use of helmets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say helmets are estimated to prevent 37 percent of crash deaths among motorcycle riders and 41 percent of crash deaths for motorcycle passengers.

Alcohol also continues to contribute to highway deaths. Kentucky reports that in 2012 alcohol use was involved in 18 percent of traffic fatalities, a reduction from 2011 but still far too many. In West Virginia and Ohio, alcohol impairment was cited in 26 percent and 31 percent of fatalities, respectively, in 2011. And this is despite stepped-up efforts to crack down on drunken drivers. That suggests more strategies are needed.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and AAA, for example, are calling upon states to make more widespread use of ignition interlock devices for all convicted drunk drivers rather than just repeat offenders. Drivers would have to blow into the device and register a sober blood alcohol level before the car would start. That's a step that policymakers in our three states should move to implement.

Down the road, more technological help could be on the way. The federal government and automobile makers are funding the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) project, which aims to develop a mechanism similar to ignition interlock devices that would be installed on all cars. The technology, and the installation of it in all new cars, is still eight to 10 years away, but scientists say it has the potential to save 10,000 lives a year. The project leader calls it the "seat belt of our generation."

While safety agencies continue working to reduce road deaths, all motorists should remember that they could have the most impact by becoming more responsible drivers. Don't drink and drive. Buckle up or put on the helmet. Don't be distracted by your cellphones. Drive defensively.

And remember, the life you save may be yours or that of a loved one. Isn't that enough incentive to be more careful on the road?

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