Congress held extensive public hearings on the Toyota safety defects, for example, even though the risk to millions of Toyota drivers is statistically small. On the other hand, speeding is a factor in one-third of all highway deaths.
Compared with the Toyota controversy, there is no clamor for Congressional action calling for tough enforcement against speeding. There is no victims' advocacy group urging installation of speed controls on all vehicles that could prevent drivers from exceeding the legal limit.
Instead, Congress repealed the national maximum speed limit in 1995. Since then state after state has raised speed limits on many roads, costing thousands of lives. A petition to require controls to cap the top speed of large commercial trucks has languished for three years.
Meanwhile, distracted driving and cell phone use behind the wheel are getting all the attention. With much fanfare, states are enacting bans targeting various aspects of phone use by drivers, especially texting. Yet, there is little evidence that the laws will work. While we may find an effective legislative solution in the future, the results so far are not encouraging. Recent research by my organization on hand-held cell phone bans enacted in three states and the District of Columbia found that the laws are not reducing crashes even though hand-held phone use declined.
Why is our aim so far off? For one thing, officials are reluctant to take on the vocal opponents they would have to cross to implement some of the tough enforcement programs that research shows are effective. In contrast, it's been fairly easy to enact bans on texting while driving because they affect younger people, who usually do not march on state houses or vote in large numbers.
We should not forget that we have made significant progress over the years on some big highway safety problems. Through regulations and government and insurance industry crash-testing programs, vehicles are safer than ever before. Through "Click It or Ticket" enforcement campaigns, the percentage of American drivers buckled up has risen to 84 percent. But progress in many other important areas has stalled or reversed course because too often we let ourselves become distracted from what really works.
[Insurance Institute for Highway Safety]