Oregon’s roads safer than ever (at least since cars came along)

By Jayson Jacoby February 05, 2010 11:14 am

We Americans can do just about anything in our cars.

Die, for instance.

Fortunately we’re dying in our cars far less often in Oregon than we used to.

Last year 381 people were killed in crashes in Oregon.

A terrible toll, to be sure.

But that’s also the fewest traffic deaths in the state in any year since 1949, when 356 motorists were killed.

This hopeful trend has continued into the first month of 2010, as well.

A dozen people died on Oregon roads in January.

That’s the fewest in any month since the state started keeping track in the 1930s, said Troy Costales, Safety Division administrator for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The average for January is about 33.

January was also just the third month in which fewer than 20 people died in Oregon wrecks. The two others are February 2009, when 16 motorists were killed; and February 1999, when 18 died.

Comparing death totals from years more than half a century apart doesn’t tell us all that much, though, about how much safer it is to go for a drive now as compared with 1949.

For one thing, there are a lot more of us now.

Oregon’s population has more than doubled since 1950 — from 1.5 million to 3.8 million.

Many of us own cars. And as you’ve no doubt noticed, we drive them pretty much everywhere.

In 2008 there were almost 4.2 million vehicles registered in Oregon.

In 1949 there were 659,000.

To level the playing field, as it were, the people whose job it is to conduct these grisly studies (professional rubberneckers, you could call them) also tally the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled.

By that measure, taking a Sunday drive on an Oregon road in the late 1940s sounds to me about as safe as strolling across no man’s land during the Battle of Verdun.

The fatality rate in 1949 was 6.38 per 100 million miles traveled.

The 2009 rate was 1.08. That’s the lowest in state history (for motor vehicles, anyway; records of horse and buggy mishaps are rather scarce).

But to show just how dramatic the difference is between now and the Truman Administration you have to extrapolate. Which ODOT did.

If Oregon’s roads were as hazardous in 2009 as in 1949, here’s how many of us would have died last year:


To reiterate how many actually died:


That’s an amazing statistic. And, though I’m loathe to use this adjective in reference to tragedies, an impressive one.

Quite a lot of people deserve credit for the improvement — far more, I’m sure, than I know about.

Certainly, though, the list must include the engineers who design cars, the advocates such as Ralph Nader who lobbied for safety laws, and the legislators who voted for those laws.

It’s quite a feat, after all, to take an activity as inherently dangerous as traveling at 65 mph in a machine that weighs a couple of tons, and make that activity vastly less dangerous even while the number of people participating in it grows by more than 2 million.

Also, we still let 16-year-olds drive.

(I got my drivers license on my 16th birthday. Before the blessed certificate had been in my wallet even two hours I smashed into the rear end of my friend’s mom’s Toyota. Nobody was hurt, but this is what you call an inauspicious start to a driving career. Although my dad called it something else.)

ODOT officials cite several reasons to explain the state’s declining death rate. Chief among those is our predilection for buckling our seatbelts.

“Our observed safety belt use is at 96 percent, and that’s among the top three in the country,” Costales said. “Consistent safety belt use is the single most effective way to protect people in a vehicle crash.”

Even more effective is to not crash at all.

One way to accomplish that is to turn 17. It worked for me, anyway.

Better brakes and tires help, too.

I couldn’t find any studies with specific data to back my hypothesis, but it seems to me likely that some fatal crashes, perhaps many, wouldn’t have happened had the car been able to stop 40 or 50 feet sooner than it did.

Consider, then, that a brand new 1973 Datsun 240Z traveling at 60 mph needed 179 feet of pavement to stop.

And the Z is a sports car, one of the best-performing vehicles sold that year and a machine considerably more agile than anything available at dealerships in the 1940s.

By comparison, a 2010 Ford Fusion — which not even a driver prone to hyperbole would describe as sporty — can go from 60 to 0 in 126 feet.

That’s a difference of 53 feet. Which is a pretty important advantage if there’s an obstacle — a semi-truck or a 500-foot cliff or a baby stroller, say — within that 53-foot span.

In fact, of the 120 vehicles in the road test summary from the latest issue of “Road & Track” magazine, the worst braking performer, a Subaru Impreza, can stop from 60 mph in 138 feet.

What I’m getting at here is that even the most rudimentary car of today is, in its way, a magnificent machine.

None can defy the laws of physics, of course.

And neither airbags nor stability control nor the formidable array of computers that inhabits the modern automobile can overcome the determined failings of a driver who is drunk or distracted or just plain incompetent.

But even though no car is foolproof, today’s models are notably more forgiving of a driver’s foolishness and ineptitude than were their predecessors.

The comparative lack of carnage on Oregon’s roadways over the past 13 months is perhaps the most obvious evidence of the growing sophistication of the automakers’ art.

It’s certainly the most welcome.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.