Are we safer 30 years after third brake light mandate?

Mary Chapman
Chicago Tribune

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.

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.