Every now and again while I’m driving on a two-lane highway and a car is approaching in the opposite lane, I’ll wonder what I would do if the oncoming car suddenly veered across the yellow line.
It’s the sort of daydream that makes my blood run cold — perhaps the most apt metaphor ever conceived, even if it’s not physiologically accurate.
The chilling reality, of course, is that in the course of even a short drive on a highway, the margin between safety and disaster is slim indeed.
With two vehicles going in opposite directions and each moving at, say, 55 mph, nobody has reflexes rapid enough to avoid a collision if the driver in the other lane swerves left when the two cars are within a couple hundred feet of each other.
I try not to dwell on such scenarios for the obvious reason that if I did I’d probably be too afraid to set off on even a short jaunt.
And although I enjoy walking, going shank’s mare to any destination much beyond Haines would tax my patience, and worse still my stamina.
(Hitchhiking, I’m told, is discouraged.)
Yet as horrifying as it is to imagine, even for a few seconds, how one twitch of a steering wheel could turn a routine trip into your last trip, the statistics are reassuring.
Or at least as reassuring as statistics can be — which isn’t especially reassuring.
Most of us, it seems to me, tend to think not of charts, which reduce the risk of driving to decimal points or fractions, but rather of the terrible photographs of a car that looks as though it was not involved in a collision but rather was the target of an artillery barrage during the Battle of Verdun.
Except even the statistics these days tell a troubling tale.
For the six-year period 2009 to 2014, Oregon’s roads — everything from interstate highways to neighborhood streets — were safer than they had been since Model As were puttering about.
The yearly fatality rate, which is calculated as the number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled, was below 1 in three of those six years, and barely above 1 in the other three. The six-year average was 1.003, compared with 1.34 for the previous six-year period — a 34-percent drop in the fatality rate.
But after making such substantial progress toward making our roads less bloody, we’ve lost our way.
After 2013, Oregon’s fatality total increased in each of the next three years. And not by a little — the death toll in 2016 was 495, the most since 2003 (512). Seven of the deaths in 2016 happened in Baker County.
Fatalities dipped to 439 in 2017, but so far 2018 is on pace to reverse that trend. As of Nov. 5, 397 people had died on Oregon’s roads this year, up from 361 for the same period in 2017, an increase of 10 percent.
This trend didn’t result solely from a comparable increase in the number of miles we’re driving, either. The fatality rate has also increased.
Statisticians came up with the deaths-per-100-million-miles rate to account for increases in the number of vehicles, and thus miles driven, which of course have been dramatic over the past several decades.
It’s a useful tool.
Lest anyone think that Oregon’s highways were comparatively safe back when few households owned two or more automobiles, and many didn’t have even one, the fatality rate makes for sobering reading.
In 1949, for instance, the rate was 6.38 deaths per 100 million miles traveled.
Had that rate continued into our current decade, with around 3 ﬁ million more vehicles plying Oregon’s roads than in 1949, the yearly death toll from 2009 to 2014 would have averaged around 2,200.
The actual average was 335.
That period includes what was, sadly, the apex of the trend of reducing the carnage on Oregon’s byways.
That was the aforementioned 2013, when 313 people were killed in traffic crashes in the state. That was the fewest for any year since World War II. The fatality rate was also a record low of 0.93.
But you needn’t look nearly so far back into history as the 1940s to recognize how significant that number is.
As recently as 2003, Oregon’s highway death toll was 512.
The 2013 figure, then, was 48 percent less than in 2003. And the fatality rate dropped 36 percent over that decade.
I’m neither a statistician nor an auto engineer (although I do change my own oil, generally successfully, and keep track on a scrap of paper), but I’m tempted to attribute this trend largely to technological (and in some cases legal) changes that make cars safer.
Except the historical record casts quite a bit of doubt over that explanation.
Air bags, for instance, which unquestionably save lives, have been mandatory equipment on new cars sold in the U.S. since Sept. 1, 1998.
And seat belts have been standard equipment for much longer — notwithstanding the relatively small number of motorists who, inexplicably and counter to Oregon law, refuse to use them.
The more intriguing comparison is with a more recent federal law that took effect on Sept. 1, 2011, and requires new cars to have both antilock brakes and, more notably, electronic stability control (ESC).
Antilock brakes, perhaps surprisingly, have been shown to reduce non-fatal accidents but to have no statistically significant effect on fatal crashes, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Not so with stability control. This technology relies on sensors to detect tire slippage that indicates the driver is losing, or has lost, control, then automatically applies individual brakes to straighten the car’s path.
Studies have shown that ESC has contributed to reductions in fatal crashes nationwide.
ESC is neither foolproof nor immune to the laws of physics, of course.
If you try to take a 20-mph corner at 55 on packed snow, not even the most advanced ESC is likely to keep your car on the road (you’d be better off counting on ESP to stop you from doing such an asinine thing in the first place).
Oregon is not an anomaly in the upward trend in traffic deaths. Nationwide statistics, both in total deaths and the fatality rate, have seen similar trends over the past five years.
You needn’t indulge in unrealistic optimism to believe that this trend can end — the milestone of 2013 proves that the rising death rates over the past few years are hardly inevitable.
The human part of this equation is all but impossible to predict, of course.
But it’s certain that today’s new cars are safer than those of any previous generation, thanks both to electronic aids such as stability control and to design improvements such as crumple zones.
We have given ourselves, and in the case of ESC required their use, the tools to make roads safer.
We just need to use those tools, which means we need to avoid driving in ways that make even the most advanced car in effect an unguided missile.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.