1: “Since 1980, about 650,000 Americans have lived who would have died if traffic death rates had remained the same,” Steven Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Automobile deaths are down twenty-four-fold since the numbers were tabulated for the first time in 1921. Which is “not even the full story,” he writes, “since for every person who died there were others who were crippled, disfigured, and racked with pain.”

This decline in automobile fatalities is even more impressive given that Americans continue to drive more and more miles: 55 billion in 1920, 458 billion in 1950, 1.5 trillion in 1980, and 3 trillion in 2013.

“The additional miles driven did not eat up the safety gains,” Steven notes. “Automobile deaths per capita (as opposed to per vehicle mile) peaked in 1937 at close to 30 per 100,000 per year and have been in steady decline since the late 1970s, hitting 10.2 in 2014, the lowest rate since 1917.” [Note: the number increased to 12.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2021.]

This improvement is the result of three initiatives: The first was technical, Steven tells us, involving the introduction of “four-wheel dual braking systems, collapsible steering columns, high-mounted center brake lights, buzzing and garroting seat belts, and air bags and stability control systems.” 

The second factor was “the paving of long ribbons of countryside into divided, reflectored, guard-railed, smooth-curved, and broad-shouldered interstate highways,” he notes.

The third initiative was Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s successful campaign for “higher drinking ages, lowered legal blood alcohol levels, and the stigmatization of drunk driving which popular culture had treated as a source of comedy (such as in the movies North by Northwest and Arthur).”

In prior RiseWithDrews, we’ve looked at the incredible increase in prosperity over the past 200 years. 

“As society became richer, it spent more of its income, ingenuity, and moral passion on saving lives on the roads,” Steven observes.

2: But it’s not just auto safety that has improved. 

The likelihood of dying in a commercial airplane today is nearing zero. “The overseers of air traffic safety are never satisfied,” Steven writes. “They scrutinize the black box and wreckage after every crash, and have steadily made an already safe mode of transportation even safer.” 

In 1970, the probability of dying in a plane crash “was less than five in a million; by 2015, that small risk had fallen a hundredfold,” he notes.

So, what are the likeliest causes of accidental death after car crashes? 

Falls, drownings, and fires. And there is good news here as well. 

“Since the 1930s, the chance that Americans will fall to their deaths has declined by 72 percent,” he notes, “because they have been protected by railings, signage, window guards, grab bars, worker harnesses, safer flooring, and ladders, and inspections.”

Dying by water and fire has also declined significantly. “The number of victims of each has declined by more than 90 percent,” Steven writes. “Fewer Americans drown today, thanks to lifejackets, lifeguards, fences around pools, instruction in swimming and lifesaving, and increased awareness of the vulnerability of small children, who can drown in bathtubs, toilets, even buckets.”

3: The reduction in the number of deaths caused by fire is also way down.

“In the 19th century, professional brigades were established to extinguish fires before they turned into conflagrations that could raze entire cities,” he notes. “In the middle of the 20th century, fire departments turned from just fighting fires to preventing them. The campaign was prompted by horrific blazes such as the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, which left 492 dead, and it was publicized with the help of heart-wrenching photos of firefighters carrying the lifeless bodies of small children out of smoldering houses.”

The resulting outrage resulted in the formation of presidential commissions with names like “America Burning.”

“The campaign led to the now-ubiquitous sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire doors, fire escapes, fire drills, fire extinguishers, fire-retardant materials, and fire safety education mascots like Smokey the Bear and Sparky the Fire Dog.”

The improvements have been significant. “Fire departments are putting themselves out of business. About 96 percent of their calls are for cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies, and most of the remaining are small fires,” Steven notes. “A typical firefighter will see just one burning building every other year.”

There is, however, one type of accidental death that is not falling. Which we will cover in tomorrow’s RiseWithDrew.

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Was I aware of the good news regarding the reduced likelihood of death from automobiles, airplanes, falls, and fires?

Action: Share this data with friends and family who are convinced we live in the worst of times.

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