Do we need cars to save us from ourselves?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Cars have had seatbelts in them for more than 40 years, yet more than a third of the people killed in motor vehicle accidents in 1995 through 2005 didn't have them on.

The effects of alcohol on our driving ability are well known, yet more than 30 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes had blood alcohol content levels of .08g/dL or higher -- the level at which a Nebraska driver is deemed to be legally drunk. About 32 percent of the drunk drivers were ages 21-24, followed closely by drivers 25-34 and 35-44.

And, of drivers with a BAC of .08 or higher, 25 percent had had their licenses suspended or revoked.

Even being sober isn't a guarantee of safe driving, as many of us push beyond our car's performance limits and our own driving abilities.

Law enforcement officers and court systems are full of people who have broken traffic laws of one sort or another, but with more than 40,000 people killed in motor vehicle accidents every year, it isn't enough.

Despite decades of education and tightening drunk-driving laws, too many of us insist on irresponsible activity behind the wheel.

Short of draconian new restrictions, however, is there anything we can do to stop the slaughter?

Yes, according to a couple of entities that made the news earlier this week.

One, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has spearheaded the get-tough on DUI's effort for the past quarter century, is calling for electronic measures to keep drunks from getting behind the wheel of a moving car.

The other, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is calling for all cars to have electronic stability control by 2012.

MADD is still promoting sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols during peak driving periods -- such as the Thanksgiving Day weekend we're now enjoying. But, citing fatality figures that refuse to decline, the group is calling for all states to require ignition interlock devices on the cars of people busted for driving under the influence.

The idea was explored years ago in Nebraska, but today, only New Mexico requires interlocks for first-time drunken driving offenders. However, legislation is being prepared for other states.

MADD is also calling for study of technology that could "immunize" cars from drunken drivers, such as embedding a device on the steering wheel that can measure blood alcohol content.

Even drunk drivers -- and sober drivers as well -- would be better protected if all cars had electronic stability control, like many advanced foreign cars already do. The insurance industry would like the requirement to be in place even quicker than the 2012 deadline proposed by the NHTSA.

Basically, what it does, after detecting a vehicle going out of control, is engage the automatic braking system to put the car back into the safety zone.

Do we really want cars that are smarter and more responsible than we are? Remember the ignition interlocks of 1974, which prevented cars from starting if our seatbelts weren't locked? Public outcry put an end to that in about a year.

But accident statistics lend credence to the effort to build cars that are able to save us from ourselves.

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