States that have stricter, more numerous laws pertaining to alcohol and traffic-related offenses tend to have lower rates of traffic deaths, according to a new study conducted by researchers from New York University.

Published in the journal Public Health, the study culled 27 different laws, ranging from child restraint laws to taxes on beer to DUI fines, in order to determine the relationship between an increased prevalence in laws and a state’s overall rate of traffic-related deaths. The research was set against a backdrop of tightening concerns over motor vehicle safety, particularly in regards to drunk driving. Between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of all states enforcing these laws jumped more than 50 percentage points, from 7.7 percent up to 59 percent.

Led by NYU researcher Diana Silver, the team built their study around two points of criteria, the first being that all 27 laws must be aimed at changing individual behaviors concerning either alcohol consumption and/or traffic safety, and the second being that prior research must have already conferred the health benefits of enforcing each law. And despite the enormous raft of technological distractions seated dangerously in our periphery, it turns out the laws are actually making driving safer.

"Our findings show the human cost of these differences in state law environments," Dr. James Macinko, who analyzed the various quartiles of death proportions in each state along with co-researcher Silver, said in a statement. Compared to states in the lowest quartile, those in the top quartile showed 14.5 percent fewer traffic deaths. Even in the second-lowest quartile, deaths were five percent lower than the worst performing states.

Keeping in mind the 33,000 automobile fatalities that occurred last year, Silver acknowledged a sobering fact about states that still maintain loose safety laws. "Lagging behind in adopting the full range of the laws is not a theoretical concern — more people are dying as a result," Silver, an assistant professor for the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, explained. "Policymakers and advocates should focus attention on states where such protections are the weakest and bring them up to speed."

If the current data is anything to go by, Silver’s recommendations have already started to take hold. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation, even though the number of traffic fatalities increased in 2012 after six consecutive years of decline, the overall trend among injuries and deaths since the late 1960s and early 1970s still paints driving as an increasingly safer activity. Experts speculate this is due to fewer inexperienced drivers on the road, as well as a tightening grip among various state drunk driving laws, as evidenced by Macinko and Silver’s study.

In the end, of course, we are still imperfect creatures trying to navigate two-ton metal shells at high rates of speed. Accidents are bound to happen so long as human error comes into play. But whether autonomously-driven cars will ever populate the landscape is a separate question and one that still waits to be answered.

 

Source: Silver D, Macinko J, Bae J, Jimenez G, Paul M.  Variation in U.S. traffic safety policy environments and motor vehicle fatalities 1980–2010. Public Health. 2013.