Plummeting Highway Fatalities: More Cures For Worry Porn

Perhaps some of you have seen this striking video of a test collision between a 1959 Chevy Bel Air and a 2009 Chevy Malibu while it was making the rounds on Facebook over the past few days:

[Alternate link, with commentary, here]

Astonishing, isn't it? It's very easy to caricature modern cars as flimsy and liable to disintegrate at the least provocation. That’s of course until you realize that modern cars are designed that way to protect the driver--a fact painfully driven home when you see how pathetically the crash test dummy in the 1959 car fares compared to the 2009 dummy. My face hurts just thinking about that poor dummy in the 1959 car.

Here's some data to think about: Highway deaths in the USA peaked in 1972 at 54,000 a year.[1] Today, total highway deaths have declined from this peak level by about a third.

Now, "down by a third" might seem at first like a meh datapoint, until you realize that, today, we have a 50% larger population and we drive two and a half times more miles per person than in 1972. In other words, on a per-capita basis highway deaths are only a third of what they were then, and on a per-miles-driven basis they are only a fourth of what they were. Here's a chart that drives home the point (click to bigify):

Not only that, but cars today are far more fuel efficient, far less polluting and far better built. This should particularly resonate with you if, like me, you grew up in the seventies, riding with your siblings in the "back-in-the-back" of rusted-out station wagons. With fashionable simulated wood grain paneling.

Today, when you get into your car and drive somewhere, your risk of death is now, roughly, 1/4 what it was in 1972, and down 95% since the 1920s. And yet we worry about things like bisphenol A in the linings of our canned food.

One again, in an era when it’s never been safer to be alive, it's all too easy to worry about all the wrong things.

For further reading:
Wikipedia data on highway fatalities

[1] Another way to put these statistics in (sobering) context: The United States lost 58,000 soldiers over the entire 13+ years of the Vietnam War--a terrible tragedy. Yet during the war we were losing almost that many people every year in traffic accidents.

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