Slaps on the wrist won’t stop traffic deaths

On Sunday, I was traveling on Interstate 95, coming back to Tampa from North Carolina. Like many people on long interstate drives, I wanted nothing more than for the trip to be over as soon as humanly possible. Then it happened. In the southernmost county on South Carolina’s

I-95 corridor, traffic slowed to a crawl. Of course, I was upset – I cursed whatever idiot ahead of me had the audacity to impede my progress south.

I knew the cause of the slow-down had to be crash related – I saw an emergency vehicle approach from behind.

I then saw the cause of my delay. A pick-up truck had left the road and struck the trees that separated the northbound and southbound lanes. I was sure this crash resulted in a death as the passenger compartment was badly damaged. Fortunately, according to the South Carolina Highway Patrol, I was wrong – nobody died. But the incident was a reminder of just how dangerous automobile travel is.

Before I knew the truth, I couldn’t help but think about the aftermath of the crash for this unknown person’s family and friends. People, I thought, were going to be told a loved one was not coming home. Their lives would be forever altered and all I could think about was how this was going to make my 10-plus hour drive 20 minutes longer. Clearly I – like too many people – take driving for granted. I think of it as a utilitarian activity used to get from place to place. I don’t give it much more thought than any other chore. Sometimes, people need reminders that driving is deadly.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death for Americans of typical college age. This is, of course, no big surprise. What may be more surprising, however, is the leading cause of fatal crashes in Florida. Speeding? Driving under the influence? Actually, according to data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, “careless driving” beats both, although speeding and drunk driving give careless driving a run for its money.

Careless driving is difficult to define, but it can be thought of as doing something stupid behind the wheel that isn’t already spelled out in another statute, such as exceeding the “safe speed limit” or drunk driving. By paying attention and obeying well-known traffic laws, the single biggest killer of college-age Americans can be greatly reduced.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. For as long as I can remember, authorities have been pleading for drivers to exhibit caution on the roads with slogans like “drive defensively,” “arrive alive” and a myriad of other public service announcements promoting safe driving.

The problem is most people think it’s the “other guy” who’s the problem. Too many young people think they are the best drivers on the road, so they won’t be killed in a wreck. I don’t care how good a driver you think you are, the laws of physics still apply. If you drive too fast or do other stupid things behind the wheel, your chances of dying or killing someone are far greater than those who pay attention and obey the traffic laws.

Since appealing to people through public service announcements appears to do little good, we need traffic laws with more teeth. Currently, violating most traffic laws results in little punishment outside of a typically affordable fine. If people who violate traffic laws were punished in a way more consistent with non-traffic laws, I believe the roads would be much safer places.

Maybe raising the fine for first offense moving violations to at least $500 and suspension of driving privileges for at least thirty days, as well as increasing penalties for subsequent offenses, would save lives.

Harsher punishments would make people more aware of the importance of traffic safety and forcibly remind them that the power to reduce crashes is in their hands. Also, I recommend treating people who are at fault in traffic fatalities as though they killed someone. Too often, when someone causes another’s death with a car, it is treated like an unavoidable act – they didn’t mean to do it. Some think punishing them harshly doesn’t do any good because they are not “real” killers – they just made a mistake. But if more people who kill behind the wheel are punished with jail time measured in years – not days – maybe motorists will realize the deadly potential of their cars and operate them accordingly.

Josh Corban is a senior majoring in anthropology.