Give me a wheelin my hands," says a recent hero of American fiction, "and four on theroad." Americans are endlessly, incredibly on the road—"freewheelinginhabitants of inner space," as Transportation Expert Wilfred Owen says.Along the nation's 3.5 million miles of concrete and asphalt, gravel and rutteddirt they roll, in 74 million cars, trucks and buses, flowing to work and backagain, hauling goods, carrying children, pursuing weekend and vacation fun.Oftentimes they drive just to be driving, to roll, to move, to "burngas."
The automobile isAmerica's prime expression of freedom, of independence, of the treasuredprivilege of being able "to get away from it all." Man or woman, pooror rich, old or young, it is the American's last-ditch weapon against beingtied down, his latter-day covered wagon in which he can always seek a newhorizon. Yet it is a symbol of freedom that carries in itself the seeds of itsown restrictions: by their very numbers Americans are encroaching upon thischerished privilege; with their own driving habits and the very cars they drivethey are slowly but inevitably closing down the open road.
"It's meantto be fun," said Indianapolis Driver Rodger Ward in this magazine a yearago (SI, Jan. 30, 1961), but for 38,000 Americans every year driving is death.Traffic accidents are the single most perilous factor in restricting thefreedom of the open road today. The daily toll of more than 100 lives is worsethan that for any single-plane air accident in history except one. Moreover, somany people are injured that no one even attempts to count them all precisely.The National Safety Council, using one criterion, estimates 1.4 million yearly,the Public Health Service, using a different one, says four million. The SafetyCouncil has also estimated that at least 100,000 are disabled for life.
Those figures areall the more appalling because the young are hit hardest. Between the ages of15 and 24, traffic accidents cause more deaths than all other leading causescombined, including heart disease and cancer.
January 22, 1962
"We arebleeding to death," says Assistant Surgeon General Albert L. Chapman, oneof a growing number of men who have come to regard the toll as a chronicepidemic, a health problem of calamitous dimensions.
This havoc on thehighways brings in its wake enormous patching-up problems—of treating theinjured, who forever tax the hospitals; of sweeping up the debris of 10 millionseparate accidents every year; of settling accident litigation in courtsforever clogged, forever behind schedule. The cost in dollars, says the SafetyCouncil, is in the neighborhood of $6.5 billion yearly.
There is smallcomfort in the fact that much safety progress has been made since the bad olddays when, with fewer cars and drivers, we were killing people at a fasterclip. There is not enough comfort in the fact that roads and cars are better,that really aberrant drivers are more quickly spotted and curbed, that newdrugs and improved hospital emergency care save some lives that a generationago would have been lost (although emergency treatment at the crash scene isstill chaotic). Nor is there much comfort in the fact that the death rate forevery 100 million vehicle-miles (one car, bus or truck driven one mile equalsone vehicle-mile) has dropped to a record low of 5.1—down from 12 in 1941, theworst year ever for deaths—when 38,000 still die every year.
This mileage ratefor measuring progress is by no means a perfect yardstick; it tells little morethan the broad national trend. The rate is virtually worthless for comparingthe safety performances of disparate states, nor can it be used to calculateaccident odds for the individual driver. In 1960, for example, Rhode Island's1.9 mileage death rate was the country's lowest, Nevada's 8.3 the worst. WasRhode Island doing a four-times-better safety job than Nevada? Nobody knows.The comparison only tends to confirm what traffic authorities do know: thaturban rates are customarily lower than rural rates. Heavily urban Rhode Islandnormally would have a lower rate than mostly rural Nevada.
As for thedriver, any driver, there is no way to calculate his individual chances ofsurvival. There cannot be, because every set of driver-car-road situationsdiffers at any instant in time from all the millions of others, and all thesesets are instantaneously changing. Some degree of danger is the onlyconstant.
Thus the diseaseis not a simple one. It is monstrously complex. Every part of it poses specialproblems; none will be easy to solve.
To begin with,there are the streets and highways. We have some superb ones, but we are stillgoing to have to live for a long time with some badly planned, alarminglyoutdated and patently dangerous ones. The concept of permanent free-flowinghighways, long propounded by the road-builders, has received wide acceptanceonly in the last decade. Until then, major cross-country roads were built onlyto be choked at intervals by "string development"—private businessesmushrooming at roadside, with the consequent menace of "fringefriction," cars darting off and on the pavement to and from restaurants,peach stands, ice cream emporiums and the like. For example, U.S. 1 betweenBaltimore and Washington sizzles with accident-provoking friction. A newfriction-free highway parallels it today but, as one highway official says,"We can't keep throwing roads away." The cost of new ones is steep—from$1 million to $40 million a mile on the 41,000-mile Interstate system nowabuilding.
The major cities,never designed for cars in the first place, are notoriously hard-pressed merelyto manage their movement. Wilfred Owen says every large American city is"obsolete." Los Angeles and its satellite cities, where the automobilehas virtually killed off the public transit system, yearly add 100,000 vehiclesto an already overburdened network.
In New York, homeof America's most dedicated jaywalkers (who are bowled over like tenpins) andcenter of a traffic glut that extends into deepest exurbia, many sometimedrivers have long gone carless in despair over the urban jangle. Nor is thereany relief to be found in the smaller towns across the country, as everyone whohas ever had to buck 5 o'clock traffic at Saturday afternoon shopping time cantestify.
Chicago, fightingthe usual big-city congestion, is just recovering from a wholly unpredictableproblem. Police morale dropped last year when a freewheeling burglar implicateda dozen cops in his crimes. "The police became timid," says TrafficChief Terrence Doherty. "They were afraid to write a traffic ticket forfear the offender would sound off about crooked cops." As a delayed-actionconsequence, fatalities rose alarmingly in early 1961. It took months for largenumbers of drivers to discover the enforcement ease-up, but when they did theytook the abnormal risks that brought about the abnormal toll.
Cars pose aproblem of their own. How safe are they? How safe should they be? Who is todecide? So far the automakers have been relatively free to decide forthemselves, and their answer has been that safety is an integral part of theautomobile's development rather than a factor to be dealt with separately. Thusover the years they can claim credit for adding as standard equipment suchimprovements as all-steel bodies, four-wheel brakes, windshield wipers anddefrosters, rearview mirrors, sealed-beam headlights, vastly improved tires,safety glass, dished steering wheels and improved door locks. Other items,found on some cars but not on others, such as windshield washers, backuplights, glare-reducing mirrors and self-adjusting brakes, have also madedriving safer.
General MotorsPresident John F. Gordon recently summed up Detroit's position before theNational Safety Congress: "Every year's new-model cars are safer as well asbetter in other respects, but these improvements are in response to forces atwork in our free competitive economy—not in response to regulatoryforces."
In Gordon's view,"amateur engineers" who would make cars "foolproof andcrashproof" are calling for the unattainable and subjecting Detroitautomakers to unjust and misdirected criticism. "We can only design into[the automobile]," he declared, "the greatest degree of safety that isconsistent with other essential functional characteristics. Beyond that, wemust depend on intelligent use."
Robert Forster,GM safety coordinator, explains another angle of the problem. "A man willonly buy the degree of safety he can afford," he declares. "People say,'Make certain safety items standard equipment,' but they sure don't want theprice of the car to go up."
Clearly, Detroitfeels that safety as such is hard to sell to the car buyer. Performance, yes.Style, yes. Safety, no—and with some reason. The American Medical Associationhas long urged manufacturers to "delethalize" car interiors byinstalling crash-absorbent padding and removing or recessing all knobs andprojections that plainly compound the injury potential of a bad accident. Yetwhen Ford five years ago in its 1956 sales campaign put its advertising musclebehind a safety pitch embodying some of these proposals, it fell flat. The Fordproposal was a so-called "lifeguard" package—seat belts, dashboard andvisor padding as optional equipment, improved door locks and a dished steeringwheel with recessed post as standard. Meanwhile, Ford's old sales rival,Chevrolet, plugged its 1956 product as "the hot one." Ford laggedbehind in the sales race and soon shifted its pitch from sale!) tozip—"cools off the hot ones." That was the end of that experiment; thepackage can still be had, as can its equivalent in other makes, but neitherFord nor any other maker features safety in its selling.
The single mostcontroversial safety item right now is, paradoxically enough, one whoseusefulness both Detroit and its critics recognize. Seat belts (of which morebelow) do save lives; yet public demand, which the automakers claim as theirchief arbiter of change and innovation, has yet to make itself felt inDetroit—and so seat belts remain a point of argument rather than agreement. Theautomakers will provide them, but only as optional equipment. A 15-man group ofNew York State legislators and citizen safety leaders, headed by State SenatorEdward Speno, went to Detroit last winter and demanded installation ofseat-belt anchor points. All manufacturers complied, and the points (for twobelts, front seats only) are standard equipment on 1962 models. In OctoberWisconsin became the first state to make the belts themselves mandatory: twofront-seat belts must be installed on all 1962 cars sold in the state and onall 1962-and-later-model used cars bought after the enactment date. "We areproud in Wisconsin to be first," says Assemblyman Norman Anderson. "Wethink every state in the Union will eventually require them."
Although theseachievements reflect a growing informed and official concern, drivers of everybackground and condition have stubbornly resisted the seat belt. A mere 3% to5% of American cars have them today. It is estimated that two out of threepersons who have access to belts do not use them. Enforced use of the seatbelts may be the next logical step, but it has not yet been taken inWisconsin.
The drivers, infact, are the most puzzling problem of all. "We drive as we live," saysHarvard Professor Ross A. McFarland, and this dictum is generally accepted.Reversing the dictum, it follows that we live dangerously. Indeed, the driveris blamed for 80% to 96% of the accident problem, the rest being attributed tocars, roads and rules.
The driver, asmany students of safety see him, is under-trained and overconfident. He tendsto be sloppy about crucial car maintenance. The Safety Council's familiarholiday-slaughter warnings don't seem to impress him; with accidents widelydispersed, he sees little firsthand evidence of the very real dangers of theroad. And since driving is only an occasional activity, he gives it only afraction of the concentrated thought he devotes to getting on in life andkeeping baby in shoes.
Dr. JamesMalfetti, head of Columbia's Safety Research and Education Project,characterizes the nation's drivers as occupying points along a continuum, withsafety at one extreme and extreme unsafety at the other. "Somedrivers," he says, "are habitually so close to unsafe that a minimum ofnegative forces [e.g., a quarrel, an unfamiliar road] makes them dangerous. Forothers, the point is far enough from the unsafe end that even considerablenegative forces might not be harmful.
"But mostimportant is the understanding that for each driver, the unsafe end of thecontinuum can be reached. No one is immune to unsafe driver behavior."
Malfetti furtherwarns that self-satisfied drivers who put the major blame for accidents on theaccident-prone are kidding themselves. On the contrary, he says, it isprecisely the normal, average driver who, because of his great numbers, is thegreatest menace. "Normal drivers doing normal things" caused most ofthe accidents probed in a Northwestern Traffic Institute study. Malfetti pointsout that a driver's first accident may well be his last: most drivers involvedin fatal accidents had had no accidents before.
Many things havebeen suggested to protect the normal driver from his own lack of concern abouthow and when he drives. There have been proposals for electronic warnings and"dead man's throttles" to solve the problem of the driver who fallsasleep or becomes momentarily unconscious from drugs, disease or drink. Whenthe horsepower race was in full swing in Detroit a few years ago, someCongressmen wondered out loud if there shouldn't be governors on engines tolimit maximum speeds. Nothing came of that—and fortunately so, since the ideawas unsound, limiting as it does not only speed but the sometimes vital factorof acceleration.
Once again thecase of the seat belt demonstrates how even proved facts do not seem topenetrate. The Cornell crash-injury research team, after a study of 20,000accidents in the mid-1950s, reported that the use of belts would sharply reducefatalities and major injuries. The exact degree was arguable and reallyunknowable, but it is now generally believed that collision fatalities andmajor injuries would drop by about one-third if every driver and passenger usedseat belts on every trip.
The Cornellinvestigators already knew that a serious accident involves not one but twocrashes—first, car hitting car (or tree, bridge abutment, etc.) and then thepassengers hitting some part of the car's interior. Besides establishing theeffectiveness of seat belts, the Cornell study further showed that occupants ofa crashing car arc five times better off if they stay inside it than they wouldbe if they were thrown out, a finding that reversed a popular assumption. Thuscrash-resistant door locks are another important safety factor. Ford, as noted,started installing better locks on its 1956 cars; the improved locks becamestandard, industry-wide, on the 1957 models. Cornell believes these new lockssave 800 lives every year, A perfect lock keeping doors closed in anyconceivable collision would, in Cornell's opinion, save no fewer than 5,500lives, but the perfect lock, unfortunately, hasn't been invented.
Safetyresearchers are everywhere plagued by a lack of meaningful accident-reportdata. Police and highway patrol reports are skimpy, and such common notationsas "speed too fast" and "following too close" are just aboutuseless as research tools.
HarvardUniversity is trying to fill part of this vacuum. It has embarked on afascinating five-year study of fatal accidents in and around Boston. As inmajor airline-accident investigations, the so-called interdisciplinary methodis used—in plain language, a number of specialists in various fields work oneach accident together. Psychologists, pathologists, physicians, trafficengineers all dig into the accidents. Every case study includes an autopsy ofthe victim, disassembly and microscopic scrutiny of the accident vehicles,physical and psychiatric examinations of the survivors and an inquiry into thevictim's personal life.
The project,financed by the U.S. Public Health Service, is in its third year. A hundredaccidents have been fine-combed so far. Among other things, it has beenestablished that mechanical failure, often due to misuse or poor maintenance ofthe vehicle, is more common than has been supposed. Here is the gist of one ofHarvard's thought-provoking case studies:
Last spring a15-year-old boy, too young to be licensed, was driving his date home from theirhigh school prom in her father's car. The car struck a tree. The girl waskilled. The boy was charged with manslaughter.
The Harvard groupdiscovered that the boy had taken the wheel soon after leaving his home despitehis father's warning that he should not drive. Unwilling to flout custom, thegirl, older and licensed to drive, nevertheless insisted that the boy drive. Hewas so nervous, he revealed later, that he had to lift his trembling foot tothe accelerator with his hands.
The couplearrived safely; they left the dance early so that the girl could take thedriver's seat unseen by classmates. Unfortunately, other couples also leftearly. Rather than risk ridicule, the boy agreed to drive the car for a mileand then trade seats. On the road the car swerved and crashed.
The Harvardgroup, making an investigation far beyond the means of ordinary enforcementauthorities, discovered that a part of the car's steering linkage had snappedand caused the accident. The criminal charge was dropped, and a lesser chargefor illegal driving was brought.
PrincipalInvestigator Alfred L. Moseley has further reported: "There are trees onroads in Massachusetts that have been the cause of two or three autofatalities. Yet after each crash a tree surgeon is sent out to repair thetrunk. One road I know has a tree in the middle of an intersection. Another isso marked that traffic, at a bifurcation, almost inevitably goes down the wronglane. There has been one fatal collision at this spot already. Sooner or laterthere will be another. But that road is still unchanged—a perfect accidenttrap.
"There is astubborn determination on the part of many investigating officials," saysMoseley, "to ascribe the cause of traffic fatalities to speed, incompetenceor to excessive use of alcohol. Two cardinal reasons exist for the attitude:laziness and ignorance of possibilities. Bad highway engineering, vehicularfailure, physical incapacitation and intent are rarely considered—much lessexplored."
Moseley takesvigorous exception to the general tendency to put most of the blame foraccidents on driver behavior. "This could hardly be further from thetruth," he says, but until he winds up the Harvard study we will not havehis final word.
From the driverwe turn to still another tough and intricate problem, that of regulation andenforcement. Basic authority for licensing drivers and policing roads inAmerica is split 51 ways—among the 50 states and the District of Columbia—andthe 51 sets of motor-vehicle laws are so at variance with each other that thePresident's Committee on Traffic Safety has called them "a jungle ofconfusion."
This is howthings stand:
Only 21 statesand the District have separate motor vehicle departments, prepared to handleall traffic responsibilities in a concerted way.
Only 17 statesrequire yearly or twice-yearly vehicle-safety inspections. Inspection lawsinclude some spacious loopholes—e.g.. New York tests only cars more than fouryears old and used cars. The other states rely upon intermittent police spotchecks, voluntary inspection setups and the driver's conscience (yet whereverinspections become mandatory, thousands of defective cars are scrapped beforethey a re ever inspected because their owners know they will not pass).
Only one state,Pennsylvania, requires a physical examination of the driver as part of thelicensing process. While the others, on paper, deny a license to anyone with adisabling injury or disease, in practice they depend upon the examiner todetect the visibly unfit; beyond that they take the applicant's word. Needlessto say, many have lied. In Kansas, Highway Safety Director Claude McCammentdiscovered two years ago that 10% of those receiving state aid for the blindhad drivers' licenses. These clearly incompetent drivers are among thousands ofAmericans who were licensed in the days when formal tests were rare andsubsequently were excused from the tests when they came in. And only in thelast seven years has South Dakota—the last state to fall in line—required anylicense at all. Periodic reexaminations are given in only 11 states—which meansthat in 39 states once a driver has passed a test he's in, until he attractspolice attention. Injury, disease or mental deterioration may befall him, yet,unless he gets arrested, he can stay dangerously on the road.
The teststhemselves vary remarkably; their chief common characteristic is that they aresketchy and hurriedly given. It takes just 15 minutes to hustle the averageapplicant through an eye test and a quiz on traffic laws. Driving tests havebecome general since the war, and they presumably have disqualified manymaladroit persons. But the typical test is a simple drive-a-few-blocks-and-parkaffair; rarely is an applicant required to perform at highway speeds; never ishe called upon to demonstrate the simplest emergency techniques—urgent stops,recovery from skids. Grumbles a North Dakota official: "If the applicantcan turn the key, start the car and put the brakes on, he'll get alicense."
Much is left tothe examiner's discretion. For instance, an armless Nebraska college studentwas okayed for a license when he satisfied his examiner that he could operatehis manual-shift car with his legs alone. To be sure, this is an exceptionalcase. Plenty of examiners in the more conscientious states are hard to please.In California the driving test covers 63 items and, in a typical month (August1961), examiners flunked 22,367 of the 119,465 persons tested.
Viewed alltogether, the states have come a long way in licensing, but they still have along way to go. The same is true of enforcement. State patrols and city policedepartments continually beg for more money for more men, better training,better equipment.
Says J. StannardBaker, Director of Research and Development at Northwestern's TrafficInstitute, which gives the best-known traffic training course: "There isstill a lot of phoniness. Signs say 'Speed limit strictly enforced,' and thereis no enforcement. Also scattered around the country are a few specks ofmold—rotten spots where the only source of revenue is very careful enforcementof artificially low speed limits. I avoid the phrase speed traps.
"But, by andlarge, enforcement work is being done by better people and with better results.And enforcement does bring safety results. If you were to ask us what to doabout high accident rates in a community we would say put on a high-quality,high-quantity enforcement program.
"There is asegment of drivers who know how to drive better and won't. It's the job of thepolice to ride herd on them."
Enforcement onthe road and streets is a stiff enough problem; when enforcement reaches thecourts it is a monumental one. Forget all the great, lasting questions of howto reduce the glut of traffic cases, speed up justice and reform offendersrather than merely penalize them. Forget such affronts to judicial dignity asallowing the Justice of the Peace to hold court in a cafe booth, drugstore orbarn (recent true examples from New Mexico)." Even without these, thecourts would still have their hands full merely trying to cope with those whodrive after drinking. Just one aspect of that problem is this: juriestraditionally do not view drunk drivers as the public menace that common sense(and the record) show them to be; they notoriously invoke the lightestpenalties and, it seems, hurry away muttering, "There but for the grace ofGod went I."
Enforcement canalso fall victim to politics. For example, under Governor Abraham Ribicoff (nowSecretary of Health, Education and Welfare), Connecticut rigidly enforced atough traffic policy. Ribicoff's party took all possible credit for resultingsafety achievements. This irritated the Republican wing of the legislature,with the result that legislative safety work now proceeds in an atmosphere inwhich the Democrats push and the Republicans hold back until they can see wherethe credit will fall.
The list of stateproblems and deficiencies could go on and on, but three things should be keptin mind: 1) progress is costly, and the states are perennially short of funds;2) every proposed new restriction, however small or useful, provokes bitterpublic opposition; 3) even with an unlimited bankroll and strong public supportthe state governments could not build Utopian systems tomorrow. There are stilltoo many areas of ignorance. Behavior specialists say they cannot even define"the driving task." How, then, can the states test drivingqualifications perfectly?
But in theoverall perspective there is discernible today a sharp new awareness of thetraffic safety problem in all its dimensions. In Part II, SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDwill consider its strength and direction.
An examination of the main trends in traffic safetyand prospects for the future, including Washington's expanding role, newexertions at the state level and such promising technical devices as simulatorsand electronic controls.