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Car Culture

Safety First? True Once, but U.S. Now Lags in Road Deaths

times-graph_1.jpg

Fatalities per billion kilometers driven from 1970 to 2005 for selected countries

Every once in a while you can find something other than a car for sale in the New York Times' Sunday Automobiles section. This weekend, Tanya Mohn points out that in 1970 the United States ranked first in road safety worldwide. Today, the U.S. is one of the most dangerous places to drive in the industrialized world. That would help explain the Weekly Carnage.

"Here we are, probably the richest country in the world," said Barbara L. Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. "Why are other countries doing a better job than we are?"

Safety experts said the reasons were many. One, they said, was inadequate driver training. Some countries require that teenagers have 100 hours behind the wheel before they receive a license, compared to about 6 in the United States.

But expert after expert said the real problem was one of culture. With personal freedom being a cornerstone of the United States, many states are loath to pass legislation that curtails them, even when it comes to road safety. So while the governments of other countries can easily pass laws to make driving safer, like a national ban on hand-held cellphone use, those laws here are left up to the states to impose, and that is often not so easy.

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