AP

States with the toughest driving laws see far fewer traffic fatalities.

Traffic deaths in the United States have fallen nearly 35 percent over the past 30 years. That’s great news. But the nation’s roads still claim a terrible number of lives – 34,000 people in 2012 alone. And a new study finds that many of those deaths could have been prevented if more states had laws aimed at making driving safer, including those targeting drunk driving.

According to a new paper published in the journal Public Health, the states with the toughest driving laws saw an average 14.5 percent decrease in traffic fatalities compared to those with the most relaxed regulations.

The senior author of the paper was Diana Silver of the NYU Steinhardt School. Along with her colleagues, Silver looked at the effects of 27 different traffic laws intended to change individual motorists’ behavior. Those laws included: a wide variety of alcohol restrictions and penalties; bans on texting and cell phone use when driving; graduated licenses for younger drivers; and seatbelt and child restraint requirements.

Silver says that she and her colleagues were interested in delving into the effects of a system where certain types of dangerous motorist behaviors are illegal in one state, but perfectly legal in the next state over.

The period the researchers studied, 1980 to 2010, was one of dramatic change, in which some states adopted a wide range of traffic laws while others resisted, leading to a significant disparity between the most regulated driving environments and the least. In 1980, on average, states had adopted 7.7 percent of the 27 laws in question. By 2010, that average number had soared to 59 percent.

But the gap between the top quartile of states and the bottom quartile has also widened, from a difference of 8 percent to a difference of 30 percent. (States in the top quartile in 2010 were Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin. In the bottom quartile are Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming.)

That disparity in legislation manifests in the real world, Silver's research suggests, in preventable deaths. States that implemented a greater number of  “evidence-based policies” have seen “significantly lower than expected fatality rates for all age groups.” The corollary of that finding, of course, is that states that don’t restrict dangerous driving behavior to the same extent see more traffic fatalities.

Strict regulations on texting, or blood alcohol content, or graduated licenses, are sometimes opposed as intrusions on personal freedom. But Silver says that “nanny state” arguments commonly leveled against some other public health regulations don’t really make sense when applied to driving laws.

“People driving hit other people,” she says. “They are, in turn, hit by others. They have other people in those cars who don’t always have a choice to be there. That seems slightly different than arguing over the size of soda cups. Getting it wrong means that there are such egregious consequences. There are fatalities.” This public health problem, Silver says, “doesn’t have a long period of morbidity,” like elevated blood sugar. “This goes right to mortality.”

Silver's research suggests that regulations against risky driving behavior aren’t just government meddling—they save real people’s lives, and prevent immeasurable pain and suffering. States that refuse to pass them are missing a chance to improve the public health outcomes of their citizens in a measurable, dramatic way.

“Not every single death may be 100 percent preventable,” says Silver. “But many of them are.” Which leaves the question: why would any state fail to try?

Top image: Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn points to a chart showing a large increase in traffic fatalities at the end of 2012 in Burlington, Vermont. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

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