States driven toward 'zero death' crash goal

It's a long-shot safety campaign known in shorthand as "zero deaths."

Cutting the death toll to zero in crashes across all forms of transportation is an aggressive and perhaps unrealistic goal, but Illinois and more than half of the other states are working on it.

The long-sought target has been virtually achieved over the last four years by U.S. commercial aviation. Airlines operating in the U.S. have not suffered a fatal accident since the crash of a Colgan Air commuter jet near Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 12, 2009.

But over the same four-year period, more than 100,000 people have perished in wrecks on highways and other roads across America. The death toll has exceeded 32,000 people each year nationally in recent years and peaked at 43,510 in 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Almost 1,000 fatalities occurred in Illinois in 2012.

Totally eliminating vehicle crashes is not practical, at least not unless technology ever reaches the point of removing driver behavior and human error from the equation, experts say.

So the immediate focus is on putting an end to crashes that lead to fatalities. The roots of the program can be traced to Sweden, where 16 years ago safety officials declared that zero crash deaths is the only morally acceptable goal.

The Illinois Department of Transportation adopted the goal of zero roadway fatalities in 2009 when it revised the state's strategic highway safety plan. About 30 states have established their own programs aimed literally at driving down the death toll to zero.

A new study by the University of Minnesota evaluating the effectiveness of zero-death programs found that the states that have worked the longest promoting the four "E's" of safety — enforcement, education, engineering and emergency medical services — have been the most successful at reducing crash fatalities.

Washington State in 2000 and Minnesota in 2003 were the first states to adopt the zero-fatality goal, the study said. Utah and Idaho also operate successful programs in which the study determined that a statistically significant fewer number of crash fatalities occurred after the zero-death initiatives were introduced.

"The evidence from our evaluation showed that active programs work," said Lee W. Munnich Jr., the study's lead researcher and director of the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University of Minnesota. "One of the keys is to prioritize and delegate funds and get more engagement from different agencies to produce the biggest bang for the buck."

Targeting resources directly on the problem, whether it's beefed-up police enforcement in specific locations or redesigning roads to slow traffic where accidents are prevalent, has had the biggest effect on reducing fatalities, the researchers found.

"The toughest challenges are the behavioral ones, where drivers know they shouldn't be doing what they are doing, such as drinking and driving, but they do so anyway," Munnich said.

Raising the public's awareness about the costs to society caused by crashes that result in deaths and serious injuries will help drive down accidents, officials said.

"People say, 'Ah, you can't get there.' That is the response you always get" to the zero-deaths program, said John Webber, interim director of IDOT's traffic safety division.

"When we ask people what would be an acceptable goal statewide, people say less than 1,000 crash fatalities a year," Webber said. "But when it comes to their family, the answer is zero. If all families feel that way, then why is zero an impossible goal?"

As a starting point, reducing roadway carnage by half in the U.S. is considered an attainable mark by many traffic safety authorities. Illinois has accomplished that since the 1960s and '70s, the most recent period in which crash fatalities exceeded 2,000 annually in the state.

In those days, many drivers and their passengers didn't wear seat belts, if their vehicles were even equipped with the devices. Anti-lock brakes, air bags and life-saving crunch zones on vehicles did not exist.

Today, Illinois has work to do before crash deaths would be halved again, or reduced further toward the zero target.

In 2012, 962 people were killed in vehicle accidents in the state, up 44 deaths from 2011, according to IDOT. The numbers have been up and down over roughly the past decade, with the high point occurring in 2003, when 1,454 people died on the roads in Illinois.

The annual death totals have been below 1,000 since 2009, and state officials say part of the reason is that more drivers and passengers are buckling up.

However, driving in general, tracked by the number of vehicle miles traveled, has gone down in recent years, because of several key factors that include an escalation in gas prices and the pocketbook impact of the Great Recession on driving behavior, officials said.

The state seat-belt law has been toughened twice in the last 10 years. In July 2003, the law was amended to authorize police to stop a vehicle if the officer observes either the driver or front seat passengers not wearing a safety belt. Last year, the law was revised to require all occupants to wear a safety belt.

IDOT officials said an increase in the rate of seat-belt use — it's about 94 percent on average statewide — correlates directly with the reduction in crash fatalities. Accident investigations show that about half of the victims who died in crashes were not wearing their seat belts, officials said.

Males 16 to 34 years old represent a big portion of seat-belt law violators, especially in situations where alcohol is involved, authorities said. Targeting this group through police enforcement, particularly in the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. period, and education, including the in-your-face running tally of crash fatalities that IDOT has been running on highway message boards since 2012, are part of the zero-death campaign, officials said.

"Those are the folks involved or dying in crashes these days," Webber said. "Getting them to buckle up is a start. But the real message is that there is no safe amount of alcohol because judgment, reaction and perception changes. Until we get drunk driving under control, we are not going to get to zero deaths."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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