AAA’s Latest Road Safety Report Ignores the Obvious: We Should Be Driving Less

The American transportation system is dangerous because Americans have little choice other than driving. Photo: La Citta Vita/Flickr
The American transportation system is dangerous because Americans have little choice other than driving. Photo: La Citta Vita/Flickr

Among developed nations, the United States ranks near the bottom for traffic safety. And it’s not getting better, as the number of annual traffic deaths climbs above the 40,000 mark. To reverse this trend, the AAA Foundation for Road Safety this week released a report that prioritizes six road design changes it says would do the most to reduce the death toll. There’s just one problem: AAA’s report doesn’t consider the idea that, to save lives, we should be driving less.

There are two commonly used measuring sticks to assess traffic safety. One is tracking how many people are killed per mile driven, which frames safety efforts in terms of make driving safer. The U.S. has improved a lot on this front over time, according to OECD statistics cited by AAA, but at 1.14 deaths per 100 million miles driven, it still has a middling record — better than South Korea and the Czech Republic, which clock in above 2.0, but far worse than Sweden, which has just 0.52 deaths per 100 million miles driven.

The other metric is how many people are killed per capita, which tends to lead to solutions that reduce exposure to driving and encourage walking, bicycling, and transit. It’s here that the U.S. really fails: America’s fatality rate of 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people is far behind other developed nations and disastrously worse than world leaders like Sweden and the United Kingdom, where fewer than three of every 100,000 people die on the road.

The problem in the U.S., then, isn’t that driving itself is far more dangerous than in other countries, though there’s still room to improve on that front. It’s that Americans spend far too much time behind the wheel.

We've made it safer to drive. But we haven't made it easier not to drive in the first place. Chart via AAA
We’ve made it safer to drive. But we haven’t made it easier not to drive in the first place. Chart via AAA

And yet, AAA’s six key recommendations have almost nothing to say about reducing the amount of driving:

  1. Convert key intersections into roundabouts
  2. Install roadside barriers and clear roadside objects
  3. Add sidewalks and signalized pedestrian crossings on majority of roads
  4. Install median barriers on divided highways
  5. Install shoulder and centerline rumble strips
  6. Pave and widen shoulders

Of these, only “add sidewalks and signalized pedestrian crossings” can remotely be construed as encouraging less driving. Some recommendations are certainly worthwhile, like more roundabouts, but others could actually make things worse. Depending on the context, recommendations like “clear roadside objects” and “install median barriers” can lead to highway-style designs that encourage speeding and make walking or bicycling all but impossible.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask the American Automobile Association to advocate for anything that would reduce the amount of driving. But peer nations offer a model for the U.S. to emulate. Canada, Japan, Spain, Belgium, and New Zealand — all urbanized countries like the U.S., some also with large rural areas — are roughly equal to the U.S. when it comes to fatalities per mile driven, but have far lower fatality rates overall. That’s in large part because they have different approaches to land use, transit, and road design that, taken together, reduce the need to take a car for every trip.

AAA’s report is focused on highway infrastructure investments as a tool to reduce fatalities. But that’s an old approach that forces Americans behind the wheel far too often. The biggest problem facing U.S. traffic safety comes from our over-reliance on automobiles. Fixing that is the real challenge.

  • Joe R.

    A few things jump out at me:

    1) Driving is about 5 times safer per mile traveled now than in 1965. However, it appears the rate at which safety increased started decreasing rapidly around 1992. The rate was almost flat until 2006, then decreased from again from 2006 to 2009. It has remained practically flat since. My take is most of the “easy” gains were gotten from 1965 to 1992. Some innovations, like anti-lock brakes and collision avoidance detection, helped decrease the rate slightly since. However, the long-term effect of these types of innovations are flat because of risk compensation by drivers.

    2) We’ve negated most of the safety benefit of fewer fatalities per mile by driving more. The number of deaths has only decreased by about 1/3 despite the fact driving is on average 5 times safer than in 1965.

    The hard fact is traveling by automobile is a dangerous proposition compared to traveling by rail even with modern safety innovations. Unless we automate the process it always will be much more dangerous due to two degrees of freedom and human error. Also, most of the easy gains on safety have already been made. The real problem is the person behind the wheel. So either we automate driving entirely in the near future, or we start setting up society so most people don’t need to drive. The current situation isn’t even remotely acceptable. 35K dead annually would get any other mode of transportation shut down until we could find a way to make it safer. The double standard we’ve used here is mind-boggling.

  • Dan Anderson

    40K in 2016.

  • davistrain

    One of the differences between the US and Europe is that driver’s license standards are tighter “over there”. Because public transit coverage is better, a person who doesn’t drive is not at the same disadvantage that he or she would have in this country. Since more people use transit, it doesn’t have the “loser cruiser” stigma that bus service has in the US.

  • B_Carfree

    The US is so far down the rabbit hole of car dependence that it will be extremely difficult to climb out. Consider that some studies indicate that the median American is not just overweight, but is obese and bordering on morbidly obese. It’s pretty tough to get someone who is 40% body fat to consider moving about under his/her own power. A casual stroll or bike ride to a normal person is an extreme exercise proposition for a typical person in the US.

    There is a glimmer of hope with things like e-bikes and e-skateboards that will allow people who have spent their lives sitting still to move around without a car. I’m so pleased that these machines are finally ready for prime-time. Of course we still have to get passed the somewhat irrational fear factor. Riding a bike is about as risky as being in a car, per hour, and brings other added benefits, but perception is otherwise.

  • AAA has not missed the mark here. It is absolutely possible to greatly increase the safety of America’s road network without doing anything to actually reduce driving. These recommendations are spot-on for what is needed to improve safety on America’s road network, though I’d suggest that they take it a step further and just adopt the Dutch Sustainable Safety policies. The Dutch have managed [link] to go from having roads that are more dangerous than ours were in the 1960s to roads that are now less than half as deadly as ours. A similar approach here would’ve seen 25k more people remain alive on our roads last year. Results like that should be pursued immediately.

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