Milwaukee Doctor Joins National Call For More Highway Safety Laws

Jan 12, 2021

Updated at 3:45 p.m.  

Highway safety advocates are urging Wisconsin, other states, and the federal government to pass laws that the advocates say would keep thousands more drivers and passengers alive. 

A Milwaukee-area doctor is part of the push.

Preliminary federal estimates for last year show vehicle miles traveled went down, presumably due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the fatality rate per miles traveled appears to have gone up. In Wisconsin, highway deaths rose by 43 over the total for 2019 to nearly 600. 

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, sums up last year this way: "Unfortunately, instead of our emptier streets leading to safer streets, our roadways have become reckless racetracks."

Chase blames more speeding and impaired and distracted driving for the death rate going up. Her group, which is a coalition of insurance companies, law enforcement and public health officials, recently released its annual roadmap that rates all the states on whether they have 16 of what the advocates call "essential" traffic safety laws.

Wisconsin is one of 30 states with a yellow rating, given to those having between six and 10 of those laws on their books. Specifically, Wisconsin has eight of the 16.   

One law the state does not have is a mandatory helmet requirement for adult motorcyclists.

Coalition member Dr. Stephen Hargarten of the Medical College of Wisconsin says that's unfortunate.

"The data is irrefutable, that motorcycle helmets reduce serious head injuries and save lives. Sadly, in the medical profession, un-helmeted riders are referred to as organ donors,” he says.

Dr. Stephen Hargarten of the Medical College of Wisconsin speaks during Monday's media briefing.
Credit Screengrab by Chuck Quirmbach

Not everyone is on-board for a new helmet law. ABATE of Wisconsin, a motorcycle advocacy group has said they want to focus on preventing crashes instead of focusing on "safer crashes."

"ABATE of Wisconsin is disappointed in the narrow approach that the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety took in addressing safer crashing rather than crash avoidance. ABATE of Wisconsin has long believed that, as a responsible adult it should be your choice as to what protective gear should be worn while safely operating your motorcycle. ABATE feels that through proper training and responsible riding, fatalities could be reduced by avoiding crashes. Crash avoidance is the one sure way to prevent fatalities," said Steve Panten, ABATE of Wisconsin’s Legislative Committee Chair, in an email.

Panten did say that ABATE appreciates Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety's commitment to trying to make Wisconsin's roads safe.

Other laws present elsewhere, but absent in Wisconsin, include a few limiting teen driving and one requiring an ignition interlock device for everyone convicted of driving under the influence (DUI).

The advocates group is also promoting national requirements that all new cars have technology that helps reduce crashes. Alan Maness, of State Farm Insurance, particularly likes a collision warning system with automatic braking. He says so does the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

"The IIHS data show it would reduce front to rear crashes involving injury by 56%. So, that's something that we need to have as standard equipment in all new vehicles with a minimum performance standard,” he says.

Chase agrees that the lack of a minimum performance standard is a key issue.

"Because right now, auto manufacturers can put these technologies into their vehicles if they wish, but there's no bottom line of safety that they have to meet. If the U.S. Department of Transportation promulgated final laws saying, an automatic emergency braking system has to stop in X number of feet, then we, the consumers, would know there's a safety assurance,” she says.

Cathy Chase, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, speaks during Monday's briefing.
Credit Screengrab by Chuck Quirmbach

Chase says the way carmakers sell the safety features also has to change.

"Right now, they are either bundled with non-safety features or bells and whistles such as a heated seat or moon roof or a heated steering wheel. In other words, you can't buy them a la carte like you can from a menu at a restaurant,” she explains.

Even with a grimmer picture last year, the roughly 36,000 people who died on U.S. roadways is far lower that the peak death year of 1972 when nearly 55,000 people died. Current highway fatality rates are about 1/20th of those a century ago.

But nationally, about 2.7 million people are hurt in motor vehicle crashes. Hargarten, of the Medical College of Wisconsin, says dealing with the injured is not what health care workers need when swamped by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We owe it to them to do everything we can to keep ourselves safe to stop further straining the health care system. A major part of that is preventing crashes and serious injuries,” he says.

Hargarten hopes lawmakers in Wisconsin and across the nation prioritize more of the highway safety recommendations.

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