America’s Progress on Street Safety Is Pathetic

This map shows traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents. Image: International Transport Forum
This map shows traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents. Image: International Transport Forum. Click to enlarge

A new report from the International Transport Forum shows America is only falling farther behind all of its peer nations on street safety [PDF].

The traffic fatality rate in the United States (10.7 per 100,000 people) is nearly four times higher than in the United Kingdom (2.8 per 100,000) and close to double that of Canada (5.8). To put that in perspective, if America had the same traffic fatality rate as the U.K., around 25,000 fewer people would be killed every year.

America’s street safety record puts it near the bottom of the ITF’s ranking of 35 countries, far behind most other developed nations.

Image: International Transport Forum
Image: International Transport Forum

Traffic deaths have generally been declining in America, but not nearly as fast as in other countries. From 2000 to 2012, the U.S. managed to lower traffic death rates just 20 percent. Even Australia, another laggard that ITF grouped among nations with the “least success” reducing traffic deaths, still managed to cut fatalities 28.5 percent. Meanwhile, high performers Denmark, Spain, and Portugal all reduced fatality rates 65 percent or more over the same period.

Preliminary data from 2013 indicate nine countries — Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal and Switzerland — reduced fatality rates more than 10 percent in a single year.

The United States was one of the worst performers among developed nations on decreasing traffic fatalities over the last decade. Image: International Transport Forum
The United States was one of the worst performers among developed nations on decreasing traffic fatalities over the last decade. Image: International Transport Forum

America’s dismal performance does not reflect a lack of resources. Sometimes “safety” expenditures in the United States include obscene projects like Wisconsin’s $1.7 billion “Zoo Interchange,” justified in large part by its supposed role in reducing collisions.

As we’ve reported before, the old road safety paradigm in the U.S. is broken. ITF notes that American safety initiatives over the last few decades have focused on making driving safer with enhanced technology in cars (airbags), efforts to increase seat belt usage, and cracking down on drunk driving.

The European nations that have been especially successful at reducing traffic deaths have gone a lot farther, prioritizing the safety of pedestrians and cyclists over the speed and convenience of driving, especially in urban areas.

In the UK and France, for example, key initiatives have included the proliferation of 20 mph zones in many UK cities and, soon, throughout Paris. ITF reports that France has also increased the use of red-light and speed cameras as a key policy initiative to prevent traffic deaths.

Speed reduction seems to be especially important in reducing pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, where American performance has been particularly poor compared to peer nations. In the U.S., pedestrians accounted for a much greater share of road fatalities in 2012 (29 percent) than in 2000 (18 percent).

In the UK, meanwhile, pedestrian deaths are falling as a share of overall traffic fatalities. The number of pedestrians killed in that nation declined 75 percent between 1990 and 2012, compared to a 66 percent drop among motor vehicle occupants. Pedestrians are especially vulnerable to speeding motorists, and the U.K.’s efforts to reduce speeding appear to be paying off. ITF reports that speed is a factor in 12 percent of road fatalities in the U.K., compared to 30 percent in the U.S.

  • At the risk of veering into touchier subjects (not my intent) I had no idea Israel did so well in these rankings – unexpected given the casualty rate elsewhere in the MENA region.

  • BJToepper

    The UK and the Netherlands are interesting examples of two approaches to pedestrian safety, both yielding similar results. In London, you’ll find quite a lot of fencing and barricades alongside roads, making it difficult to enter the road except at designated areas. This prevents jay-walking and protects pedestrians from cars. In Amsterdam, by contrast, there is less fencing, and planners have severely restricted car access to the city, or required them to act as the “guest” of other road users. In the Dam, the center of the city, there’s just a single lane for cars going one way, the rest of the space given over to pedestrians, cyclists, and trams.

    I find the difference in approach reflective of the priority each city gives to certain usages. London seems to prioritize cars over others, while Amsterdam prioritizes pedestrian/cyclist usage.

    Google Street View Examples:

    Pedestrian fencing around Buckingham Palace: http://goo.gl/maps/aLcex

    The Dam’s single car lane: http://goo.gl/maps/loqAr

  • frontporchswing

    C’mon. We’re much safer than Cambodia.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    The essential point is fine, and the US lags in many areas of using good policy to protect the lives and health of ordinary citizens. But, how would looking at fatalities per passenger mile change things? Don’t Americans just flat out drive more?

  • überfahr

    The most traffic related deaths happen in Africa. The “American region” ranks second lowest in traffic related deaths in per capita terms, behind the European region, according to WHO (pg. 6 http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2013/report/en/ . This needs to be said, given the focus on year-to-year change rather than absolute terms. But to your point: the US has a lot to learn from Europe in this domain (hard to believe watching the Germans and Austrians on the Autobahn …).

  • Streetsblog Network

    Yeah but that’s part of the problem. And American still scores badly by the way. If Americans have to travel 4 miles round trip to buy bread, instead of .5 in the UK or something, Americans aren’t any better off for it. Part of the reason so many Americans are getting killed for sure is because so many are driving around a lot in cars. If you adjust for that, it makes America’s performance look better than it is. Even so, it’s still very bad.

  • Streetsblog Network

    What about Australia. They’re doing considerably better than us. And so is Canada, a lot, lot better, in fact. Japan as well. It’s not just Europe. And comparing developing nations, on progress anyway, is almost apples to oranges. Developing nations that are seeing increased adoption of private vehicles are in a completely different stage than countries like the US and Europe. And when you look at developed nations, we’re the worst, essentially.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    Oh I agree, and policies that enabled Americans to drive less would help on this issue and others (e.g. pollution). But I think it’s important to look at data like this from multiple angles and be sure we’re teasing out the root causes correctly.

  • lowtechcyclist

    Bingo. The key unit is people, not miles. If every American drove 10 times as much as we do, and we had the same number of accidents and fatalities, we wouldn’t be any safer: the same proportion of us would still be getting killed and injured.

    The extra miles we drive are just an added drain on our time and energy.

  • bargal20

    I doubt very much that Americans drive more than Australians.

  • steverinoCT

    If it’s pedestrians who are getting killed, no wonder more folks are driving! It’s us against them!

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Is that actually right? A higher percentage of Australians live in major cities than Americans, and several of those major cities have quite good transit, at least by American standards.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    You miss my point. I am not trying to make the US look better or hide the problem.

    The importance of considering miles driven is that it’s a factor in which policy choices will do the most to reduce deaths. As argued, for example, here:

    http://www.citylab.com/commute/2013/02/4-reasons-us-trails-world-road-safety/4608/

  • bargal20

    The claim that Australian cities have better transit systems than their American counterparts is a myth. For example, Melbourne has the most extensive transit system in Australia, but has not extended that system to deal with the city’s explosive growth in the bast 20 years. Public transport infrastructure, such as the train signalling system, is ancient and unreliable. New outlying suburbs are almost completely reliant on private transport, and governments here are in thrall to road construction lobby groups.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I think you could say the same thing about most American cities. The problems facing people in the suburbs of Melbourne also face people in the suburbs of Chicago, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, and many other major cities in the United States. My point is just that the fraction of Australians residing in the central urban areas of the capitol cities is larger than the fraction of Americans residing in the central urban areas of the ten or twenty American cities with equivalent transit situations.

  • Latverian Diplomat
  • Bing Wu

    You’re right that Americans drive more on average than in most other countries, and according to this chart the stats look better when death rates are per billion km driven although America is still behind Australia(!)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate

  • Latverian Diplomat

    Sure my point was not that the US shouldn’t do better or can’t learn from other countries (like Australia or Sweden) that are working harder on safety than we are.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/22/automobiles/22SAFETY.html?_r=0

    Just that it’s a complex problem with many variables.

  • EastBayer

    In this post, you seem to be implying that the “root cause” is NOT primarily that Americans drive more, which is a strange position to hold.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    Huh? If anything I’m implying the complete opposite. If fatalities per mile driven is relatively LOWER than fatalities per capita that means miles driven is a significant factor in the total number of fatalities.

    Looking at just the one statistic for deaths per capita tells you the US has a problem, but it doesn’t tell you whether miles driven is part of it or not. That’s the multiple angles/root cause connection you seem to be misunderstanding.

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  • AlanInSF

    As in so many measures of quality of life and civic effectiveness, we’re #33. USA!

  • Nathanael

    Well, Argentina does pretty badly, and it’s not “developing” in the same sense that Cambodia or Malaysia is. But South America is notoriously car-dependent as well.

  • maurinsky

    Not surprised by this report, but I do live in a part of the country where it appears we let the cows design the roadways outside the of the central city. I would like to add that pedestrians need to behave better as do drivers. As I drove into work this morning, I nearly hit 2 pedestrians who walked right out in front of me about 15 feet away from a stop sign and crosswalk, making me slam on my brakes along with the cars behind me, who thankfully were attentive enough to do so without hitting anyone.

  • stepthrough

    The problem with employing the ‘per mile’ denominator is that you lose any effective way to compare or address bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. It makes driving look safer by comparison and also makes it look like we have a fabulous safety record as VMT has increased; while in truth travel has become more dangerous. If you compute it per capita, per trip, or per hour of travel, it is much more accurate to compare risk ratios across mode, across geography, and across time.

  • Mobility Lab

    And Mobility Lab writes here about how pathetic our bike infrastructure is throughout the country. http://mobilitylab.org/2014/08/15/a-wiggle-protected-lanes-and-bikeshare-bring-hope-to-san-francisco-bicycle-commuting/

  • Latverian Diplomat

    You seem to think i’m arguing against using the per capita statistic at all, and replacing it with something else. I’m not.

    Our point of disagreement seems to be that you think there must be some single most accurate statistic that completely summarizes the problem. I am saying that we can look at the data in multiple ways and learn more about the problem that way. Additional ways of looking at the data could provide even more illumination, e.g., rural vs. urban, long trip vs. short trip, pedestrian vs. cyclist vs. car passenger.

    Looking at more data and in different ways doesn’t have to distract from the problem, and it absolutely enriches the discussion of causes and solutions.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I don’t know if we should even be talking about our “peer nations” any more, at least with reference to Canada, western Europe, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. Many years ago, long enough that I can’t find it online, William Raspberry wrote that the United States might end up being the first country in history to voluntarily migrate from the First World to the Third. Soviet-era terminology aside, I’m more and more inclined to think he was right.

  • Leo

    It’s exactly because of this complexity Sweden is grappling the problem better: they have a larger scope in what they do, namely including non-motorist street use and speed management in the problem.

    They’ve also adopted effective motorist-specific infrastructure like lightweight median barriers, cheap enough to install on any rural highway: head-on collisions are eliminated at the cost of ability to pass.

    Taking up these things into the safety project involves going against old rules and goals. You’d be deliberately slowing down, disrupting and blocking traffic, deliberately removing the ability to do dangerous manoeuvres from people, deliberately reducing the total amount of traffic.

  • ChargerBinks

    You’re not capable of determining something of this magnatude

  • ChargerBinks

    It doesn’t know WTF it is talking about

  • John Lindstrom

    Yes. thus, stop driving so much! I stopped driving (commuting) in 1966 and am still alive, while watching with an eagle eye for speeding, distracted drivers as I walk or bike. Changing the statistical method doesn’t reduce deaths!

  • Kidd Canseco

    The speed limits in the US are generally too low, and this is why the US lags behind other more developed nations with higher speed limits. The US also has an enforcement system that devotes 99.9% of its time to revenue generation, and virtually nothing to safety related violations.

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