FOR all the knocks Americans like to give government for intervening too much or too little in their lives, one bureaucracy has reason to crow. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has hard evidence that auto safety measures promoted by government regulators since 1960 have worked to significantly save lives.
Some 40 years ago, according to the government agency, 4.6 people were killed for every 100 million passenger-vehicle miles on the nation's highways. Today that number is down to 1.25 deaths per 100 million miles. The lower fatality rate is attributed to safety measures that made a big difference for accident victims.
Initially, Americans hated seat belts. They refused to wear them. Too confining. In the early 1980s just one in 10 drivers buckled up. Today, four out of five do. Since 1960 NHTSA credits seat belts with saving 168,524 lives, or more than half the total number of lives saved - 328,551 - from various safety upgrades.
And then there are energy-absorbing steering assemblies. The old steering columns were rigid and could impale drivers in a collision. They were once a leading cause of highway deaths. In today's cars, they collapse like a telescope with a downward thrust instead of right into a driver's chest. Chalk up an estimated 53,017 lives saved as a result.
Front air bags, only introduced in the 1990s, were rated third among vehicle life-saving features in 2002 even though just 63 percent of all cars on the road had them at the time. NHTSA found that air bags helped virtually all front-seat passengers in a crash - aged 13 and older - with 12,074 total lives saved.
The list goes on: Better instrument panels and padded dashboards, 21,043 lives; better door locks and hinges that help keep passengers inside a car, truck, or van in a crash, 28,902; disc brakes and dual brake master cylinders, 13,053. Child safety seats, adhesive windshield bonding, stronger car frames, and improved roof strength are some of the other innovations.
Though the safety regulators have reason to gloat, they've already moved beyond measures that protect passengers in a crash to technologies that help drivers avoid them altogether. Anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control that corrects for skids are a couple of examples.
Safety devices in cars have not all been enthusiastically embraced, either by the motoring public or by auto makers, which initially claimed they were too expensive and would hurt sales.
Now, as these innovations have proven their value by helping to protect motorists from injury or death, they're considered a selling point. That's progress.