Antique automobile crash

Bloomington, IL,
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Auto Safety: The Road Behind - And Ahead

In movies and daydreams, America in decades past was a land of open highways, stylish vehicles and a simpler life. It was an era of Route 66, drive-ins and cruising.

It was also an era when lots of people died in car crashes.

As a percentage of the U.S. population, traffic fatalities were more than twice as high in the 1960s than today. In raw numbers, 1972 was the deadliest year. That year more than 54,000 fatalities, compared with fewer than 34,000 deaths in 2012, despite having a much larger population base, occurred. And measured in deaths per million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), the current rate of 1.1. This is significantly reduced from the 7.2 rate of 1950 – and a fraction of the 1921 rate of 24.1 deaths per million VMT.

Making changes to save lives

So what’s changed, and how did it happen? Simply put, researchers pinpointed problems. Then engineers, policymakers and advocates tackled them one by one.

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“It wasn’t that long ago that a lot of things we take for granted today didn’t exist,” said Anne McCartt, Senior Vice President for Research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). “Painted lines on the roads, shoulders, guardrails… By the 1960s cars had seatbelts, but people didn’t use them.”

And then there are technological improvements like airbags and child safety seats. Although required today, they were optional in the past.

In all these cases, researchers analyzed data from car crashes to figure out why injuries and deaths were happening. Then they determined what action to take to correct the source of the problem.

The power of “research to action”

A great deal of data came from insurance companies, which have unique insight into the often tragic results of crashes.

“Through our ‘research to action’ philosophy at State Farm, we focus on research to identify specific risks and evidence-supported actions we can take to achieve a positive impact,” said Chris Mullen, Director of Technology Research at State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company. “If you truly want to be a good neighbor – and we do – you want to help people avoid risks whenever possible.”

To show how far we’ve come and the cumulative impact of the “research to action” philosophy, State Farm created an interactive timeline that highlights key advancements in auto safety starting in the late 1800’s.

As a founding member of IIHS, backer of research, data source and advocate, Mullen said, State Farm has played a role in many critical changes, including:

Chris Mullen, Director of Technology Research at State Farm

      • Airbags: A leading role in the early 1980s legal battle that resulted in the requirement for airbags today. This decision had even went all the way to the Supreme Court.

      • Child safety: A joint effort with The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia® to research child passenger safety in the late 1990s. This led to numerous changes in car seats, usage recommendations and laws in the years since.

      • Teen drivers: Research and education related to young drivers and science-based efforts to make Graduated Driver Licensing. This is a program that lets new drivers gain experience gradually.

      But changes don’t need to make headlines to be significant. McCartt noted that State Farm data on whiplash cases led the IIHS to review head restraints. This in turn led auto manufacturers to redesign them.

      “The whole consumer awareness effort about auto safety is huge,” said McCartt. “Auto manufacturers now make it a selling point. It’s just phenomenal how much safer we are today.”

      What’s next: Automated vehicle technology, engaged driving

      McCartt said the IIHS is retooling to allow research on automated safety systems, like braking assist and other collision avoidance technologies. She said the technology side is the next big wave, and it requires entirely different facilities to test it.

      On the driver side of the equation, Mullen and State Farm are focusing on the Engaged Driving Initiative (EDI).

      “In 2012, the Auto Technology Research staff that I lead at State Farm conducted an environmental scan to identify significant auto safety research issues needing to be addressed. Distracted driving shot to the top of the list,” said Mullen. “Today drivers are challenged with demands on their attention by multiple devices and activities that may distract them from driving. We need to determine the best ways to encourage drivers to take personal responsibility in adopting safety-conscious behaviors.”

      As part of EDI, State Farm is backing researchers exploring the causes and solutions of distraction, and even how best to research it. (The researchers presented their findings at the Engaged Driving Symposium (March 31, 2014, Washington D.C.)

      It’s the first step towards future safety innovations– and a critical moment for those whose lives will be saved in years to come.

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