CDC: America Falling Behind Other Nations on Traffic Safety

The U.S. is falling behind peer nations in traffic safety -- any way you measure it. Source: CDC
America is falling behind peer nations on traffic safety — any way you measure it. Chart: CDC

How is the U.S. doing on traffic safety?

To hear a lot of people tell it, we’re making great strides. President Obama recently referred to the reduction in American traffic deaths as a success story of sorts, contrasting it with the rise in gun deaths.

But while traffic fatalities in America are indeed trending downward, the improvement pales in comparison to what other countries have achieved, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control.

In America, the per capita traffic fatality rate fell 31 percent from 2000 to 2013, nowhere near the 56 percent improvement in 19 high-income countries over the same period. In fact, all 19 performed better than the U.S., with the best performer, Spain, managing to reduce the traffic fatality rate 75 percent.

As of 2013, America’s traffic death rate per person was about double the average of the peer nations, the CDC reports. Even measuring traffic fatality rates based on miles driven instead of population (which makes the sprawling, car-centric U.S. look better), America still has the fifth-worst safety record of the 19 nations.

If America instantly achieved the traffic death rate of the safest country, Sweden, an incredible 24,000 lives would be saved each year.

CDC researchers Erin Sauber-Schatz, David Ederer, Ann Dellinger, and Grant Baldwin say American officials must respond:

Lower death rates in other high-income countries, as well as a high prevalence of risk factors in the United States, suggest that the United States can make more progress in reducing crash deaths. With a projected increase in U.S. crash deaths in 2015, the time is right to reassess U.S. progress and set new goals.

While the CDC emphasizes impaired driving and failure to wear seatbealts as primary causes of traffic deaths (repeating the dominant American traffic safety message of the past 50 years), the agency does single out excessive speed as a systemic risk. The CDC also refers approvingly to Vision Zero approaches to traffic safety, and the philosophy that “system providers” like transportation engineers are responsible for preventing the loss of life.

9 thoughts on CDC: America Falling Behind Other Nations on Traffic Safety

  1. This should come as no surprise if you are familiar with European road design and vehicles. In Europe, roads are design to be extremely safe. Not so in the USA. In the USA, our cars have been much safer than European cars. But, as European cars have caught up with US standards of vehicle safety, they dramatically improved fatality rates. Combine that with enforcing US standards of driving under the influence, and you get the great results above. The problem in the US is that there is no way to redesign our roads to achieve European safety standards. This would require eliminating left turns at intersections and turning every intersection into a traffic circle.

  2. If it was just about that, then it would be hard to explain the changes in Spain, Slovenia, France, and Belgium. Are they the countries that had laxest vehicle safety standards in 2000? If their vehicle safety standards were similar to other European countries at that time, then their major improvements seem to have to come from some other source, that we might be able to copy.

  3. Standards were kind of similar. But unified EU standards helped a lot. This goes either for highway design (also tunnel, bridges), or for making hard to get a drivers licence…

    – Young drivers have to do an extra test after a year or two – obtaining
    skills like cutting corner on wet, icy and snowy road, emergency stopping

    – Drivers licence is a privilige, not a right. If your drivers licence is revoked, it is a real enterprise to earn it back. The process is a hassle and expensive.

    – In Slovenia theres a daily flow of education videos in prime time on public TV (for inst. how to position your car on an autobahn in case of emergency). That is important since there are only two lanes for each direction and the emergency vehicles need to get to crash site. (Two have 3 or 4 lanes for one direction is inconceivable in this country luckily.)

    – We call mowing a pedestrian on a crosswalk an “accident”, but we consider it a murder. Jail time.
    – a driver is automatically responsible for a lot of “unfortunate” situations. You are always suppused to be alert of everything. If a child or a drunk person jumps a road, one is responsible (for not driving slow enough to see a small child or persons troublesome behaviour).

  4. Oh, and of course overall speed reductions – countries have different speed limits, but mostly like this:

    autobahns – 130kmh

    roads outside built up area – 90kmh
    roads in built up area – 50kmh
    residential – 30kmh or lower

  5. European requirements for seatbelt use and airbags have lagged the US, but now they are close to our standards. Also, DUI laws and speeding laws have become very strict. When you start with roads that are extremely safe, and then add vehicle safety and strict penalties, you get the great results. I don’t know how roads can be improved in the US, as our road network is completely built around large, high speed intersections. These intersections are where most accidents occur.

  6. “The problem in the US is that there is no way to redesign our roads to achieve European safety standards. This would require eliminating left turns at intersections and turning every intersection into a traffic circle.” Aren’t these two statements a contradiction? Why can’t this happen?

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