David Phillips: We can all do our part to preserve freedom on the road

David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

During the Fourth of July, we celebrate our freedom. Many also take time out to acknowledge the people who pay the ultimate price of preserving our freedoms — the military.

In contemplating all the ways we are free, it may not occur to people that one freedom is mobility — the opportunity to go wherever we want in the United States, usually by automobile. A fact that is even more overlooked is that we all pay a hefty price for that freedom.

Since the Revolutionary War, more than 1 million Americans have died in wars. However, since Henry Ford introduced the mass-produced car in 1913, more than 2.5 million Americans have died on the roads of this country.

Yet, we’ve never considered it an epidemic or a major health crisis. Until recently, people were more likely to die in a vehicle crash than of an opioid overdose. It wasn’t until 2017 that the opioid epidemic, which has dominated the news, overtook vehicle crashes.

According to the National Safety Council, which analyzed preventable deaths in the United States in 2017, the probability of dying from an opioid overdose is one in 96, which compares to one in 103 in a vehicle crash.

Most residents of the United States are likely to die of natural causes, such as heart disease, which has a one in six chance, or cancer, which is one in seven.

Among preventable deaths, other causes fall behind motor vehicle crashes on the list of lifetime odds of death. For example, gun assault is one in 285 and plane crash is one in 188,364.

The fatality rate in the United States is higher than most countries. For example, the vehicle fatality rate in the United States is 40 percent higher than the rate in neighboring Canada as more than 35,000 people a year die on America’s roads.

Reasons for the high number of deaths are varied. For example, fewer Americans wear seatbelts than do drivers in other countries. The United States also allows drivers to start as young as 16, which isn’t the standard in most countries, has more lax drunken driving laws, despite the tightening in recent years, and has higher speed limits along with societal acceptance that it is OK to push those limits.

The number of deaths relative to the United States population had declined over most of the previous two decades, but the trend reversed in 2015 and continued upward again in 2016. In 2017, the latest year in which figures are available, 11.40 people per 100,000 population died in vehicle crashes. Despite, the slight decrease, that is still well above any year since 2008.

Among states, Minnesota fares well. Even though Minnesota has the fifth most roads in the United States, drivers here have one of the lowest probabilities of dying in a car crash.

The United States Department of Transportation reports that Minnesota has 6.4 deaths per 100,000 population, which trails just New York (5.0) and Massachusetts (5.1). Mississippi at 23.1 is more than three times as high.

In terms of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, Minnesota has 0.62, which trails just Massachusetts (0.58).  Mississippi (1.67) is again No. 50.

Statistics don’t delve down into the specifics, but Minnesota generally seems to have conscientious drivers, at least compared to other geographic areas, who obey the laws. The state also has well-engineered highways and restrictive laws, especially for young drivers.

A new restriction coming Aug. 1 addresses the issue of distracted driving by cell phones and other electronic devices. Although the statistics don’t explain the recent reversal in declines of traffic deaths, it isn’t a stretch to think it might be the proliferation of electronic devices that find their ways to our hands while driving.

The state already restricts sending text messages or emails while driving. The new law will restrict making phone calls unless the device is in hands-free or voice-activated mode. After Aug. 1, law enforcement will be able to stop anyone seen holding a phone while driving.

Drivers need to become familiar with the particulars of these restrictions, not only because they will become law, but also because they will help reduce fatalities on Minnesota roads.

Remember, Americans are more likely to die running errands in a vehicle than we are by a mass shooting, airplane crash or other catastrophic event.  Also, with apologies to veterans, freedom of the road isn’t free.  Drivers need to pay attention, obey the laws and drive defensively so they, or the people sharing the roads, don’t pay the ultimate sacrifice.