Here’s Why Canada’s Traffic Safety Record Is Better Than Ours

The per capita death rate on roads north of the border is less than half of the U.S. rate.

Photo:  Richard Drdul/Flickr/CC
Photo: Richard Drdul/Flickr/CC

O, Canada — our neighbor to the true north is not only strong and free, but way safer.

The death rate on Canadian roadways is less than half that of the United States — 5.2 per 100,000 residents versus 11.6 here — and even accounting for the fewer miles driven by the average Canuck compared to John Doe, Canada has 43 percent fewer traffic fatalities per billion kilometers traveled.

If America was more like Canada, about 22,000 lives would have been saved last year, according to the International Transport Forum [PDF].

How could two nations sharing a border, a love of democracy and more or less the same culture (minus lacrosse) have such different outcomes on the roads? Well, it’s no mystery: Canada has better laws and far more mass transit use. So, no, it’s not just that they’re such nice people.

Neil Arason. Photo: Simon Frasier University
Neil Arason. Photo: Simon Frasier University

To learn more, we chatted with Neil Arason of the British Columbia Ministry of Health and author of “No Accident.”

Streetsblog: What explains Canada’s better performance? 

Arason: Of the wealthier countries tracked in the International Road Safety Annual Report, the U.S. is actually the worst. 

I don’t think Canada’s record is very good. We have countries now that are at 3 (U.K.), 2.5 (Sweden).

Americans do drive a lot. That’s part of it. Canada has more people that commute by public transit, about 12 percent compared to about 5 percent in the U.S.

What else is important?

Our laws are generally stronger. You still have a lot of states that don’t even have any driver distraction laws [for] cell phone use. And even in states that have them, some situations are exempt. In Canada, they apply to all drivers.

[In the U.S.] you have what’s called primary and secondary offenses. A police officer can only pull someone over if he or she is committing a primary offense. All our laws are primary laws.

Canada’s alcohol impairment laws are much stronger. British Columbia tough laws have had a huge effect. It’s reduced alcohol related fatalities by 40 percent.

All of Canada’s laws are penalties that don’t involve the criminal code. But in Canada, there aren’t any exemptions like in the U.S. Violators can’t drive to work, for example, like they could in the U.S. 

We also have stronger seat belt laws. You still have states that have no laws. We have about.a 95% seat belt-wearing rate. U.S is 90 percent, which is pretty high. But that’s still double the number of people without a seat belt on. And that makes a big difference in fatalities. 

What about other factors? Do you think culture plays a big role?

Speeds is huge — the magical safety benefit that improves road safety across the board. Higher speeds mean almost exponentially longer stopping time and more kinetic energy released in crashes.

The U.S. is a bit obsessed with freedom. There’s two kinds of freedom: “freedom to” and “freedom from.” There’s freedom to drive fast. And there’s freedom from death and injury on the roads.

I remember when Texas raised its speed limit, people said it’s a matter of personal responsibility. But is someone is speeding and they’re coming at you head on, there’s not much you can do.

Looking at “freedom from” effects on population health is kind of a starting point.


28 thoughts on Here’s Why Canada’s Traffic Safety Record Is Better Than Ours

  1. It’s even more impressive when you consider that Canada has much more expensive public transit (Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa are extremely expensive compared to US cities) and far fewer modern multi-lane highways (generally safer than 2-lane undivided highways).

    I wonder if car size has something to do with it. Canadians have less disposable income than Americans, and cars and gas are more expensive (currently about $5 Cdn a gallon, or $3.85 US per gallon). So while the most popular sedan in the US was the Camry, in Canada it was always the Corolla. Do smaller cars mean fewer fatalities? Or more?

  2. Weight differential is the problem (big/heavy cars in collisions with small/light cars). But if there are mostly smaller/lighter cars, there should be fewer fatalities. (This is a flaw in one of the purported justification of the Trump administration’s latest attempt to roll back Obama regs on gas mileage). Without the risk of collision with larger/heavier vehicles, smaller/lighter cars should generally be safer, with shorter stopping distances and better maneuverability.

  3. Is it proven that modern multi-lane highways are safer? I would think they encourage higher speeds and more conflicts.

  4. The United States is a lot less centralized than Canada. The American preference for local governance, which we broadly associate with that obnoxious sentiment called “freedom”, does result in huge disparities in enforcement. But it also creates a situation where some localities (states/municipalities) can learn from others–or choose not to act in the best interests when the constituents don’t want it. While it appears (not surprisingly) that some traffic safety laws apply uniformly across the country in Canada, there are very, very few nationwide regs in the U.S.

    That said, it seems a little disingenuous to reference the lack of seatbelt laws as a major distinction. Isn’t there like one state that has none–New Hampshire? And is New Hampshire even 1% of the country’s population?

  5. America has the highest traffic fatality rate in the first world. I agree, lax penalties for traffic violations and serious injuries/fatalities are part of it. The other part is passive safety ideology from the mid 20th century that made roadways as forgiving (and fast) as possible for drivers.

    There were 2 or 3 generations of American civil engineers whose primary goal was to avoid having a driver collide with anything near the roadway. Their thought was that driver behavior (speed) shouldn’t be influenced by design. The driver should have the freedom to drive fast and be protected from collisions if they choose to do so via a focus on driver safety technology (seatbelts, airbags, car design) and overly forgiving street design. While car technology did save lives, passive safety came at the expense of roadway design. This led to wide clear zones and wide streets in order to reduce collisions with fixed objects and property damage. The downside: increased speeds and more severe injuries/fatalities when crashes did occur, not to mention an overwhelming focus on automobile infrastructure in the 20th century which is only now being addressed.

  6. I would certainly believe that for arterial streets in an urban setting with heavy traffic, pedestrians, many turning points, etc.

    But I was referring to the truly massive intercity/interstate highway system in the US vs the mix of two lane and multilane highways in Canada, on the assumption that they had the lions share of traffic carriage. Maybe I’m wrong.

  7. The roads in some parts of the US are a lot more dangerous than others. How do urban areas of Canada compare to urban areas of the US? How do rural areas of Canada compare to rural areas of the US?

  8. If it is written by Angie Schmitt, just go to the next article. Your brain will thank you.

  9. I’m not sure that evidence suggests that necessarily drive smaller cars on the whole. I believe they do buy more B- and C-segment cars per population than Americans do, but I am pretty sure that the Ford F-series pickup is still the best-selling vehicle in Canada. The Dodge Grand Caravan has also been a consistent top seller. Neither of these are particularly small.

  10. You make a good point. Here’s a source:

    So in Canada the top 10 so far in 2018 are:

    Ford F-150
    Ram Pickup
    Honda Civic
    Chevy Silverado
    GMC Sierra
    Honda CR-V
    Toyota RAV4
    Jeep Wrangler
    Nissan Rogue
    Ford Escape

    In the US the top 10 in 2018 are:

    Ford F-150
    Chevy Silverado
    Ram Pickup
    Nissan Rogue
    Toyota RAV4
    Honda CR-V
    Toyota Camry
    Honda Civic
    Toyota Corolla
    Chevy Equinox

    There is essentially no difference in that list other than the appearance of a full size sedan (Camry) on the US top 10. Although if you go deeper you will find a few more full and mid size sedans in the US lists (Accord, Altima, Fusion) while in Canada there isn’t a full or mid size sedan anywhere in the top 30.

    So while I’m probably right that Canadians drive smaller sedans, my opinion may be outdated by the rise of crossover SUVs.

  11. Lack of state enforcement on things like requiring auto insurance, annual vehicle safety inspections, keeping drivers with suspended, revoked or no driver’s licenses from driving, inadequate penalties for drunk driving, and other factors all add up too.

  12. Not sure if there are other states without seatbelt laws. New Hampshire doesn’t require motorcycle helmets either, which doesn’t help with motorcycle fatality and brain injury stats.

  13. Another issue is alcohol prices. In Canada, alcohol is heavily taxed – there is no such thing as cheap beer. Bars and restaurants pay the full retail price on the alcohol they serve, and there are minimum drink prices. So you can have dive bar ambience, but not dive bar prices.

  14. Toronto’s transit is on the pricier side, but I don’t think you can say that it is “extremely expensive” compared to US counterparts. A single trip is $3 CAD or about 2.25 USD and a monthly pass is 146.25 CAD or about $110 USD. Chicago’s fares are 2.25 bus, 2.50 metro, and 105 for monthly pass.

    My city, Vancouver, seems to have fares similar to its peers, Seattle and Portland. A single bus trip is 2.30 CAD (1.75 USD), and a single metro or ferry trip is between 2.30 and 4.40 CAD (1.75 and 3.30 USD) depending on the number of zones. There is no transfer penalty between bus, ferry or metro. Monthly passes are also zoned and range between 95 and 174 CAD (71.25 and 130.5 USD). Seattle’s single bus trips are 2.75 and light rail fares are between 2.25 and 3.25. Monthly passes are between 99 and 117. Monthly passes are more expensive in Vancouver, but you get much more service with three different metro lines compared to one light rail line in Seattle. Portland has lower fares, 2.50 for a single trip on bus or light rail and 100 for a monthly pass, but Portland’s level of service is much lower than Vancouver’s with consequently much lower ridership.

  15. Toronto for a while was easily the most expensive transit in North America. That has calmed down some as other systems have raised their fares. And I don’t go for the whole US dollar conversion thing, since Canadian purchasing power does not move exactly with the dollar.

    But here’s another way of looking at it – the number of trips required for a monthly pass. In most cities, this number is well under 44, since there are typically 22 working days in a month and you want to make it worthwhile for daily commuters to switch to passes. But in Toronto this figure is an astonishing 49 trips — you would have to ride 49 times in a month to make it worthwhile to buy a pass instead of just paying the cheapest smartcard/token fare each time.

    In Vancouver, this is a little more complicated due to zones but if you wanted say a 2-zone pass, that would cost you only 31 trips. In Montreal and Calgary it is also 31, while Ottawa it is 34.

  16. The U.S. is a bit obsessed with freedom. There’s two kinds of freedom: “freedom to” and “freedom from.” There’s freedom to drive fast. And there’s freedom from death and injury on the roads.


  17. I don’t doubt it, but in Canada there is less of an avenue to go on a bender outside of your home – places that you might drive to – because of high prices. In BC the minimum drink price is $3 (beer, wine or a single) (plus tax and tip). Most establishments have no trouble charging well more than that, but even one inclined to sell for cheap faces that minimum. And paying the full retail cost of liquor does make Canadian bars chuck the stuff about less freely. If you want a double, you have to ask and pay for it. In the US you can have true dive bars where a double comes in a mug and you can drink on the cheap, but that’s just less of an option in Canada.

  18. There is no need to beat this to death, but I do want to quibble with the point that “you want to make it worthwhile for daily commuters to switch to passes”. A transit agency wants to keep its customers happy and to make them feel that they are getting a reasonable deal, but they also want to maximize revenue within that constraint. Deeply discounted passes will make customers happy, but it also leaves a bunch of money on the table. My local transit agency takes in around $500m a year on fares, so we are talking about giving up real money.

  19. As a dual citizen of Canada and U.S., living in both countries throughout the year, I drive both in New York and in and around Toronto. In my experience of almost 30 years of driving back and forth from U.S. to Canada, I think Canadians are far more aggressive drivers, tailgating at high speeds being the norm. Us Canadians may be more polite face to face but once in our vehicles we become dangerous. I believe it’s known as being passive aggressive!

  20. Just like the USA, Canada is very diverse. Toronto has some of the busiest roads in North America, rural not so much but that depends on season. Going north from Toronto on a Friday is painful due to campers and cottage goers. Winter snowmobile’rs. I was surprised that in some parts of the USA people get to still drive to work after getting caught with a DUI.

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

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