Published August 1973 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd Our Shameful Highway Toll In more than a decade of military involvement in Vietnam, the United States suffered 46,000 combat deaths. In 1972 alone, more than 56,000 Americans were slaughtered on the nation's highways. In all the Vietnam fighting, 153,- 000 Americans were hospitalized for wounds. Last year, by contrast, more than two million Americans suffered disabling injuries i n c a r wrecks. Why is there no real outcry against this killing and maiming? Why is there no sense of national outrage? Why, more importantly, do we not take effective steps to stop this frightful carnage? Half of America's fatal automobile accidents, it is estimated, are caused by drunk drivers. And it is also estimated that from 10,000 to 20,000 of the victims die because they do not fasten the seat belts with which all cars sold in the U.S. arc now equipped. The irrational tolerance with which so many Americans appear to view drinking and driving---the national tendency for amused winking at "having a few too many"-lies at the root of our shameful alcohol-related highway deaths and injuries. As a nation we have simply not been willing to come to grips with the menace of the drunk driver. Laws against drunk driving are on the books, but our society has not insisted that they be enforced. As for seat belts and shoulder harness, the U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed that their use be made mandatory. Despite the fact that such use would prevent injuries and save lives, a loud cry has been raised that any such legal requirement would interfere with individual rights and freedom. Nothing is said about the interference with individual freedom caused by speed limits and stop lights. The big difficulty with safety belts, of course, is the problem of enforcement. Yet, it should be noted that two years of experience with a mandatory belt statute in Australia has been followed by a 23% reduction in the highway death rate. Motorists are said to have accepted the law with equanimity, and 83% of drivers in metropolitan areas are estimated to be complying with it. But of greatest importance in this country is an all-out nation-wide campaign to get the drunk drivers off the roads. Some states-and many foreign countries-are already acting to bring this about. In England, the Scandinavian countries, and a number of others, the laws against drunk driving have been sharply tightened, and the results are evident in fewer highway deaths and injuries. The U.S. should be moving even more strongly in the same direction.