Saturday, February 1, 2014

Highway Mayhem

Since I was first elected in 2008, I’ve experienced more than my share of exercises in legislative futility. One that still leaves me slapping my head is a bill I carried in 2009 and again in 2011, that would have required that infants be carried in the back seats of cars, in rear facing restraints.

This was not some crazy idea I dreamed up on my own.  It was a recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board, it had already been adopted by several states, and when the bill was heard in the House Transportation Committee, ER docs, nurses, the Montana Highway Patrol, insurance industry representatives, automobile retailers, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving all showed up in support.  Absolutely nobody opposed it.

But when the bill came up for consideration on the House floor, the chairman of the Transportation Committee rose in opposition, allowing as how he was sick and tired of being told by government how to take care of his family. Stated otherwise, if parents wanted to put their kids’ lives at risk, it was nobody’s business but their own. A majority of the House found this line of reasoning persuasive, and the bill died.*

It turns out that Montanans are apparently pretty attached to the notion that they should be able to drive their vehicles however they damn well please – without seatbelts or booster seats in cars, without helmets on motorcycles, while texting and yakking on the phone, and even, alas, when drunk. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (a coalition of insurance industry and consumer safety groups) recently reported that out of 17 optimal measures for promoting highway safety – primary seat belt laws, for example, or required ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders – Montana has adopted just 5. This places us, along with 10 other states, in the Red category in the Advocates traffic light inspired scheme, where Red is worst, Yellow better and Green is best.

Of course it’s fair to ask if these laws Advocates are pushing do any good. Are people in states with comprehensive legislation really any safer on the road, or is government just messing with them to no good end? Do Montanans, on the other hand, pay some price to enjoy the highway anarchy we appear to insist on?

Well, yes, it looks like we do.

The Advocates report lists, for every state, the number of auto crash fatalities in 2012, total fatalities since 1989, and the annual economic cost due to vehicle crashes. By itself, that information is not very helpful, because the number of accidents obviously depends on the population of the state, how much people drive, weather conditions, the age of the drivers, and so forth. Montana, for example, recorded 205 fatalities in 2012, while California had 2,857. Who knows which state’s drivers face higher risks?

One way of dealing with the problem is to calculate for each state fatalities per vehicle mile traveled. It’s not perfect – it doesn’t take into account weather conditions, for example, or the average age of drivers – but I do think it at least points in the right direction when it comes to assessing how safe a state’s highways are. So I downloaded information on vehicle miles traveled from the Federal Highway Administration, and made the calculation.

It turns out that by this measure, there are only three states – North Dakota, West Virginia and South Carolina – where driving is more dangerous than it is in Montana. Montana’s fatality rate is 54.4% above the national average; for every two deaths in the country as a whole, Montana has three.

Having more safely laws on the books correlates with a lower fatality rate. Look at the scatter diagram above. Each point represents a state. On the horizontal axis you can see the number of the Advocates’ optimal safety laws a state has enacted and on the vertical axis, the fatality rate I calculated. The downward drift of the points as you move to the right tells you that more laws mean fewer deaths. It’s not a perfect fit, of course, but nevertheless: more laws, fewer deaths. Another way to see it is this: the fatality rate for all the states in the Advocates Green category is 15.4% below the national average, while for the Red States it is 9.3% above (the Yellow states are 3.2% above). You might want to keep this in mind next time the Legislature debates, and rejects, a common sense highway safety measure: your life really is at stake.

* The vote was on a motion to “blast” the bill (HB 220) out of committee, where it had been tabled, for consideration by the full House. The motion required 60 yes votes to pass, but it only got 48, from 32 Democrats and 16 Republicans. The remaining 52 Republicans all voted no. If you want, you can see how your representative voted by clicking here.