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


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.

  • A. Cyclist

    These statistics are misleading. The United States is a large country, and Americans drive many more billions of kilometers than Europeans or the Japanese. If adjusted for amount of available road, the U.S. would come out much better. I still don’t like our auto-centric society, though.

  • Bow

    I’m not sure I agree with A. Cyclist. Most Americans live in metropolitan areas. They are not driving across cornfields or deserts to get to work or other destinations, so pure square-mileage isn’t that significant a factor. But because our transportation system forces most people to drive, we kill more people off just via travel. This comparative graph would probably look a lot worse per 100,000 population rather than per-miles-driven.

  • JKR

    A. Cyclist:

    The study took into account fatalities per distance driven. I’m not sure what you mean by adjusting for “amount of available road”. What would that tell us? This is quoted directly from the article:

    And in what many safety experts consider a more precise measure, fatalities per distance driven, the United States was No. 1 in 1970 with the lowest death rate among industrialized countries reporting data. It now ranks 11th, with some countries reporting rates that are 25 percent lower.

  • I agree with Bow. If we really want to see how much damage the automobile causes, we have to correct on a per capita basis rather than a per mile basis.

    For example, the graph shows that the US and France have about an equal number of fatalities per mile. But that means that Americans have at least twice the chance of being killed in a car accident, because Americans drive at least twice as much as the French.

  • dan

    The numbers are better for these other countries because the residents there can choose to not drive. If more Americans could keep away from driving when tired or distracted, we’d all be better off.

    We need to change our culture so that ‘freedom to drive’ doesn’t take on thbe trapping of a religious rite.

  • Greg Raisman

    This is another really good article on the subject that compares multiple trends in US to Canada, Austrailia, and Great Britain:

    Greg Raisman
    Community and School Traffic Safety Partnership
    Portland Office of Transportation

  • Khal

    Per million people, the U.S. also does poorly. That was a sidebar in the Times article illustration which Charlie posted above.

    Americans may have to drive farther due to suburbanization, but risk goes beyond miles driven. Low degrees of training, infrastructure that has not kept up with changes in use, and lax enforcement compared to some European nations probably factors into this as well.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    That’s it, I’m moving to Malta.

    Seriously, though, it’s interesting to see the progress that some of these European countries have made over the years.

  • I published a letter along these lines in the NYT several years ago, thus:

    December 4, 2003

    Reducing Traffic Deaths

    To the Editor:

    The criterion by which the United States is ranked No. 9 in traffic safety, fatalities per million miles driven (news article, Nov. 27), bears little connection to real life.

    Americans drive more than any other people — twice as much per capita as the equally prosperous Germans, for example — because our sprawl-strewn landscapes require it.

    That our rate of deaths per mile is relatively low is cold comfort to hyper-mobile families and communities that lose more than 40,000 loved ones a year to traffic crashes.

    By the more tangible measure of traffic-caused funerals per million people, the United States now scores 27th worst among 31 countries in an international road accident database.

    New York, Nov. 28, 2003
    The writer is coordinator of the pedestrian advocacy group Right of Way and the author of a book about traffic safety.

    Once World Leader in Traffic Safety, U.S. Drops to No. 9 (November 27, 2003)

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Right on the money Charley, except the dubious proposition that we are equally prosperous with the Germans. I think wages in the US are about 70% of Germany. Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe it is just tradesman, I’m suppose the stockbrokers and insurance agents do much better here.

    Also, all Germans from age 20 to 65 take 5 weeks of vacation a year and get a 13th month salary bonus at the end of the year. Add in that they can ride a bike, take a train or drive wherever they want to go. Forget the Health Insurance difference.

    Of course, gas is expensive and there is not much air conditioning.

    But the beer is cheap.

    You pays your money and you takes your choice.

  • Niccolo-
    What a funny entry you have written there.

    So, what would this mean for the future of US?

    Any ideas?

  • Ed Crotch

    I hope no one is surprised by this. TThe US economy is fueled by the car. If a person can not drive his car as fast as they want for as cheap as they can then this ain’t America. Most driving laws are there for one reason only – to determine who is liable after there has been an accident. The police don’t do much about it, have you ever been on the GSP? The average speed in 80 mph! The police know that people need to drive fast. The police know that if they actually were to do something they would be encroaching upon the American dream, and really, who wants that?

  • speed kills

    NY allows — encourages! – speed as part of its decongestion policy. The whole emphasis has been on keeping traffic moving as fast as possible so that the most vehicles can pass through. I hope the new congestion policy will target reducing the total vehicle miles traveled rather than achieving some average speed. I know that stalled traffic is worse for pollution, but it’s not the whole picture..