How Safe Are Our Roads?

Highway safety has improved through better vehicle technology, smarter road designs and reformed behaviors, such as reduced drunken driving. But fatalities are still high: In 2008, more than 37,000 people were killed in crashes involving motor vehicles. This week, as the holiday travel season begins, NPR will explore these issues.

This week, more than 33 million Americans will drive at least 50 miles to visit family and friends for Thanksgiving. The great majority will return home safely.

But for too many families, this holiday will bring tragedy. Last year, during the four-day Thanksgiving driving period, nearly 400 people were killed in traffic accidents in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For all of 2008, more than 37,000 people were killed in car crashes.

Throughout this week, National Public Radio will be airing stories and hosting conversations about highway safety. We'll explore the many ways that safety has been improved through better vehicle technology, smarter road designs, and reformed behaviors, such as reduced drunken driving.

The changes have yielded dramatic results: In 1969, the driving-related fatality rate in this country was 5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The current rate is about 1.27 deaths.

But fatalities are still high because of the many dangers that remain, especially on rural roads where trucks, RVs and passenger cars frequently collide. And new risks are emerging as more and more drivers look away from the road to send text messages. At the same time, tens of millions of aging baby boomers are entering the years when driving skills will be declining significantly.

In coming decades, will we see more advances in safety because of new technologies and laws? Or will we see fatality rates start to rise again?

Here are some of the stories we will be covering:

Monday, Nov. 23

Vehicle Technology

The number of people killed on the nation's highways last year hit its lowest level since John F. Kennedy was president. Correspondent Brian Naylor visits the crash hall at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Vehicle Research Center to learn about the latest vehicle safety innovations.

Federal Role In Safety

Over the years, Congress has played a major role in forcing the safer design of cars. Lawmakers have mandated seat belts and air bags. They spent billions to improve highways. And they've gotten results: Highway deaths are way down. But what's next? With a sour economy and automakers in trouble, reporter Audie Cornish considers the daunting challenges Congress now faces.

California Crumbling

Budget constraints have made California's highways — once the envy of the world — more nightmare than dream. Correspondent Ina Jaffe rides along the state's troubled roads, wondering how states can maintain safety levels when they can’t afford to keep up their streets and bridges.

Tuesday, Nov. 24

Road Safety

Beyond rumble strips and cloverleaf interchanges, correspondent Naylor looks at new technologies and design ideas that can make roads safer for travel.

NPR also takes a look at the "diverging diamond" highway interchange being put to the test in Missouri.

Driving While Old

Florida is making visibility and navigability improvements because the state leads the country in older-driver deaths. All Things Considered host Robert Siegel travels there to investigate special initiatives, including an older-driver program and an anonymous tip line to alert police to potentially dangerous senior drivers.

Wednesday, Nov. 25

Teen Angel

Though highway fatalities have dropped significantly over the past decade, statistics show there has been little change in the number of highway deaths among teenage boys. NPR’s Robert Benincasa explores the persistently lethal mix of horsepower and testosterone.

Aging Suits

New technology is often touted as improving the driving ability of older motorists. Tracy Samilton of NPR member station Michigan Radio investigates whether this technology actually increases safety or simply gives false confidence to older drivers who shouldn’t be behind the wheel.

Thursday, Nov. 26

Texting — The New Drinking

Highway officials say that in 2008, nearly 6,000 people were killed as a result of distracted driving — and one-third of those deaths involved texting. NPR reports on efforts to change attitudes about mixing these two activities.

Friday, Nov. 27

Pod Cars

Getting people out of their cars is one of the best ways to reduce highway fatalities, but having them take public transportation can be a hard sell. NPR reports on what some transportation planners hail as the answer: the pod car — a driverless, point-to-point transit that doesn't involve rubbing elbows with strangers.

Saturday, Nov. 28

The Trouble With Tailgating

Many colleges have cracked down on alcohol consumption at football games. Reporter Greg Allen investigates tailgating, including a visit to a football game that's come to be known as "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”

Sunday, Nov. 29

Dangerous Rural Roads

Well over half of traffic deaths occur on rural roads, though only a quarter of the U.S. population is rural. Correspondent Howard Berkes visits a highway in Utah (once labeled “America’s Most Dangerous Highway"), which got more than $160 million in safety improvements after demands from residents. Copyright 2009 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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