Thirty years ago, the Reagan administration required that all cars be outfitted with high-mounted brake lamps, or third brake lights. Starting with 1986 models, the aim of the Center High Mounted Stop Lamps mandate was to significantly slash the number of rear-end collisions and injuries by improving the braking signal recognition of following drivers.
Still, rear-end collisions remain one of the most common types of car crashes, accounting for more than 40 percent of all incidents on U.S. roads.
Today, crash avoidance features such as forward collision warning and automated braking are making their way into new vehicles and, like the third brake light, are expected to decrease the number of rear-end crashes, experts said.
The low-cost third brake light requirement was generally accepted by manufacturers as a way to help prevent relatively low-speed accidents that typically don’t result in deaths or severe injuries. Back then, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated the regulation would result in, annually, 900,000 fewer crashes, 40,000 fewer injuries and a $434 million cut in property damage costs for consumers.
Whether the mandate met that mark is unclear, particularly when crash totals alone are considered. Between 1988 — the earliest figures available — and 2014, the percentage of fatal crashes that involved rear-enders actually rose from 4.6 percent to 5.2 percent. Rear-end injury accidents also increased, from 24.9 percent of all crashes to 28.7 percent, according to the NHTSA. Likewise, rear-end property damage-only collisions increased from 23.5 to 29 percent, and the percentage of rear-end accidents jumped from 23.8 to 28.8 percent.
But such raw data can be misleading, experts said, because other factors are involved. For instance, while the number of speed-related accidents has dropped overall since 2009, those due to drug-impaired and distracted driving crept upward, the agency said.
The economy also figures in. Percentages of rear-end injury crashes increased steadily from 1988 until around the start of the recession, then hovered at around 31 percent for the next five years. A steadily improving economy, coupled with lower gas prices, will always result in more accidents, since there are more cars on the road and more driving in unfamiliar areas, said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In late August, the National Safety Council announced that motor vehicle deaths were 9 percent higher in the first half of this year than in 2015, and 18 percent higher through June 2014.
Still, the consensus seems to be that the third-light mandate worked. As far back as 1995, an insurance institute study concluded that model year 1986 cars experienced 5 percent fewer rear-end collisions from 1986 through 1991 than would have been expected without the high-mounted lamp.
“Anything that makes you more visible is an improvement,” said Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations for Consumer Reports’ auto test center. “There’s no doubt that occupants are better protected than they were 30 years ago.”
Car safety progress was offset in the 1990s by speed limit increases and flat seat belt use gains. But that was followed by increased consumer awareness of car safety, due partially to the increased availability of insurance institute and federal crash test ratings. Carmakers responded with safety improvements, and the process has gained traction in recent years due to shorter design cycles, the institute said.
The widespread prevalence of air bags, even on low to mid-range vehicles, has also been a positive factor. “They dissipate energy much more effectively than they used to, so that occupants don’t bear the brunt of force,” Stockburger said. “And there are multiple air bags, not just those for drivers.”
Better vehicle designs and other safety technology have made cars safer than ever, with the pace of improvement very swift in recent years. Between 2009 and 2012, for example, the chances of dying in a car crash fell by a third, according to a 2015 study by the institute.
“People are walking away from crashes today that would have seriously injured or killed them 20 years ago,” Rader said.
Beginning in 2012, the NHTSA required all light-passenger vehicles to phase in electronic stability control systems, which help during a turn and to avoid sliding or skidding, particularly in slippery conditions and accident-avoidance cases.
Although self-driving car technology remains in the debugging stage, safety features such as crash-avoidance systems are available on today’s cars. Such systems anticipate accidents and give warnings or automatically apply brakes, and stop cars from crossing lanes into the path of another car. In 2013, the insurance institute said, just 27 percent of cars had an optional crash-prevention system. Last year, that grew to 47 percent.
Nearly two dozen automakers, including BMW and General Motors, have committed to making automatic emergency braking standard by 2022. Lexus and Toyota had been among those companies, but one-upped them with a pledge to install the system in nearly all their vehicles by the end of next year.
“High-level driver assist technologies can do more than help protect people in the event of a crash; they can help prevent some crashes from ever happening in the first place,” Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor North America said in a statement.
Automatic braking can substantially reduce rear-end accidents, or at least their severity. In recent years, nearly half of all two-vehicle collisions involved a rear-end crash, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. In addition, an insurance institute study shows that automatic emergency braking technology could lower insurance injury claims by up to 35 percent.
Although it will take time before automakers can equip entire lineups with rapidly advancing safety technology, the goal for many safety advocates is to prevent fatalities altogether. While such an objective was unthinkable just a few decades ago, Volvo hopes to achieve it by the 2020 model year.
While zero deaths may be a high bar for some automakers, progress is being made. In 2007, there were no models with driver death rates of zero. Last year, the insurance institute said nine 2011 vehicles had met that mark. Of the nine safest models, six were SUVs — Kia Sorento, Lexus RX 350 4WD, Mercedes-Benz GL 4WD, Toyota Highlander 4WD, Toyota Sequoia 4WD, and Volvo XC90 4WD. The other models were the Audi A4 4WD, Honda Odyssey minivan and Subaru Legacy sedan.
The vehicle with the highest death rate among the 2011 models was the Kia Rio, as minicars and small cars continue to dominate least-safe lists.
While auto companies are increasingly aggressive where auto safety is concerned, federal oversight is crucial, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.
“When you look at things like auto emergency braking, some systems are really good and some aren’t,” he said. “You may not be getting all the safety you could and should, and our position is, safety is for everybody.”