Big Oil has taken its lumps in the arena of public opinion this year, thanks to humongous company profits and record-high gas prices.
If petroleum giants such as Exxon Mobil, Shell and BP desire an image makeover, perhaps they could launch a nationwide PR campaign with this theme: "High Gas Prices Save Lives!"
Who wouldn't want praise for saving lives? Besides, it's true - those high gas prices are saving lives, because they're changing America's driving habits in multiple ways, according to a study by the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan.
The study by Professor Michael Sivak, chronicled in an Associated Press report last week, reaches a striking conclusion: Thanks to high gas prices, U.S. traffic fatalities could plunge below 37,000 this year - the lowest level since 1961, when John F. Kennedy became president, "West Side Story" was a blockbuster movie and Fritos corn chips were introduced.
If Sivak is right, this year's fatality total could approximate the highway death count of 47 years ago even though America has roughly two and a half times as many drivers and more than three times as many vehicles as in 1961.
Sivak's research shows that traffic fatalities made huge drops of 22.1 percent in March and 17.9 percent in April (compared to a year earlier) as gas prices soared. He concludes that motorists reached a "tipping point" in that period, dramatically altering their driving habits as the pocketbook pain at the pump escalated.
So what do plunging traffic fatalities have to do with high gas prices?
We're driving less. Americans reduced their miles driven for eight straight months from November through June. Americans drove 12.2 billion fewer miles in June, a drop of 4.7 percent from a year earlier.
Some Americans are driving slower to improve gas mileage. Remember, "speed kills."
People are reducing nonessential driving first, including riskier leisure driving on nights and weekends.
Teenage and elderly drivers, with higher accident rates, are more inclined than other motorists to drive less as a result of record-high gas prices, which peaked at a national average of $4.11 a gallon for regular in July.
Sivak forecasts that highway deaths this year will drop below 37,000 for the first time since 1961 if the March and April trends continue. He studied data for a one-year period through April, with fatalities falling an average of 4.2 percent for the first 10 months before making the spectacular drops in March and April.
If he's right, there would be an exceptionally large reduction of more than 4,000 traffic deaths this year. In 2007, there were 41,059 traffic fatalities, down more than 1,600 from 2006 and the fewest highway deaths since 1994. Deaths peaked at 55,600 in 1972 and then went into a steady decline, but in some recent years the annual totals changed only minimally.
Safer cars and better roads have slashed fatalities, which hit a record-low rate of 1.37 deaths per 100 million miles traveled in 2007.
We shouldn't get complacent, however. Annual U.S. traffic deaths are more than double the number of homicides. Nearly 2.5 million people suffered injuries, some severe and disabling, in traffic accidents in 2007. The economic cost for vehicle crashes was estimated at $231 billion in 2000.
Acting Federal Highway Administrator Jim Ray has issued a "call to arms" for roadway improvements to enhance safety. In 2007, a federal commission urged better enforcement of safety laws and stronger licensing requirements for drivers.
Americans shouldn't require the impetus of higher gas prices to lower road deaths appreciably. Most fatalities result from drivers speeding, drinking or doing drugs, running red lights or stop signs, failing to slow for bad weather or simply being inattentive.
We can avoid those deadly habits whether gas is $1 or $10 a gallon.
- Jack Z. Smith is an editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His e-mail address is email@example.com.