Thanksgiving: Too Many Empty Seats at the Table

By Debbie Hersman

This past weekend, America’s roadways were clogged with Thanksgiving travelers. But there were also hundreds of empty places at Thanksgiving tables across the country this year compared to last. That’s because each year more than 400 people die in motor vehicle crashes over the long holiday weekend.

That’s just one weekend. Add all the other days of the year and the number of annual highway fatalities totals about 32,000.

Thirty-two thousand lives ended. That’s more fatalities on our roads in one year than have perished in airline crashes since the beginning of U.S. scheduled aviation nearly a century ago.

When an airliner crashes it is page 1 news followed by tremendous public demand to find out what happened and fix it immediately so it won’t happen again.

That’s understandable. The U.S. airlines carry millions of passengers every year. But, why is it acceptable to lose 32,000 people each year on our roads? Where is the outrage? Where is the call to implement safety measures to prevent the same crashes from happening again and again?

Yes, there are a host of hard-working highway safety advocates whose efforts save lives, but why do we tolerate losing the equivalent of the student population of a large state university each year? Is there “cultural novocaine” that numbs Americans to this senseless loss of life?

It’s time for the novocaine to wear off. It’s time for Americans to address our nation’s fourth-leading cause of death. Fatalities from motor vehicle crashes are only behind heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Sadly, car crashes are the number one killer of our teens. As a mother — and as one of the nation’s top transportation safety advocates — I believe we can do better.

We must do better.

With heart disease, cancer and stroke, we know there are ways to help ensure a longer and healthier life, including lifestyle choices and proper medical care. And, there’s a lot — quite a lot — that can be done to improve highway safety. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its 2013 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. The majority of the items on the list address the nation’s fourth-leading cause of death.

Here’s the Most Wanted List item where the biggest difference can be made to save lives: Eliminate substance-impaired driving.

A generation ago, the NTSB investigated the nation’s deadliest substance-impaired crash. In Carrollton, Ky., an impaired driver struck a bus carrying a church youth group on its way home from an amusement park. That crash killed 24 teens and three adults and injured dozens more. Since that 1988 crash, more than 300,000 people have perished at the hands of substance-impaired drivers.

That’s a lot of empty seats at Thanksgiving tables.

Much more must be done to stem the losses from substance-impaired driving — including the use of ignition interlock technology and high-visibility enforcement.

Our new Most Wanted List also addresses a growing concern — distraction. NTSB investigations involving distraction go back years. In a 2002 crash in Largo, Md., a young driver talking on her cell-phone veered off the Capital Beltway, crossed the median, flipped over and landed on a minivan. That conversation ended in five fatalities.

Distractions that compete for a driver’s attention are only going to grow. Today, drivers can check Facebook, book dinner reservations and buy movie tickets, all while behind the wheel. That’s downright dangerous. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to be on the road next to someone updating a Facebook page while driving.

Last December, the NTSB issued its strongest recommendation yet on distraction: a nationwide ban on the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices while driving. Some said our recommendation was extreme. You bet it was. Sometime it takes extreme measures to change cultural norms.

Technology, another issue on the new Most Wanted List, offers considerable promise for improving highway safety. For example, side-curtain air bags and electronic stability control have already shown tremendous vehicle-safety benefits. And, in the future, forward-collision warning systems can help prevent accidents due to running off the road or rear-ending a vehicle, whether the cause is an impaired, distracted or fatigued driver.

With all those fatalities, shouldn’t these safety technologies be standard on every vehicle?

Each year, too many people get those phone calls and notifications that no one ever wants to receive. If we don’t act now, next year, there will be at least 32,000 more empty seats at Thanksgiving tables. There’s even more cause for concern since U.S. highway fatality estimates are up 9 percent for the first half of this year compared with last year.

One of those empty seats could be at your table. Is that when you’ll start to care about highway safety?

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