America’s Car Culture is Literally Shortening Your Life: Study

The U.S. has been falling behind its peer nations on traffic safety and now life expectancy as well. There's a connection. Graph: WHO
The U.S. has been falling behind its peer nations on traffic safety and now life expectancy as well. There's a connection. Graph: WHO

Driving is driving us to the grave.

Life expectancy at birth declined steeply in the U.S. in 2015 and 2016, a new British Journal of Medicine study reports — a finding that was attributed partly to the opioid crisis, but also to America’s ongoing traffic violence problem.

In 16 peer nations studied, life expectancy at birth was fairly steady over the same period, but dropped by .2 years in the United States — a decline that is two-and-a-half times worse than the dip in 2012.

The researchers said that about 42 percent of the shortfall is due to the opioid crisis. But the leading cause for declining longevity remains “external factors” such as traffic fatalities, which is blamed for 44 percent of the decline, the study said.

Study author Jessica Ho, a gerontology professor at the University of Southern California, didn’t address the role of traffic accidents in this study, but told Streetsblog that an earlier study found that traffic fatalities accounted for 18 percent of the “life expectancy shortfall” for men under 50, and 16 percent for women in the same age range between 2006 and 2008 compared to similar nations.

So while the opioid addiction grabs headlines, cars have quietly remained a leading killer. In 2015, for example, the U.S. traffic fatality rate jumped 9 percent. And in 2016, it jumped again 5.6 percent, wiping out nearly a decade of improvements. It was the biggest two-year jump in 50 years.

Traffic fatalities have long been a leading cause of death of Americans, and in 2015, they were the 13th leading cause of death in the U.S. overall. But because cars kill a disproportionately high number of younger people, they rank seventh in total years of life lost.

Other Western nations have been making far faster progress on reducing traffic fatalities than the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control sounded the alarm last year, reporting that between 2000 and 2013, traffic deaths per capita in the U.S. dropped at just under half the rate of 19 peer nations. Our death rate per capital is roughly double that of Canada and France.

49 thoughts on America’s Car Culture is Literally Shortening Your Life: Study

  1. Angie vs. The Car: Season 22, Episode 2,105. How many more times are we gonna get this article? Cars don’t kill. Guns don’t kill. People kill. Stop railing about the culture. Let’s change the behavior that leads to death. That’s always missing in these discussions. Behavior. Responsibility. Common sense. You can eliminate 100% of cars on the road and if people need to get around and think that anyone who happens to be in their way is a target, well, people are still gonna die.

  2. I think we’re going to keep getting this article until we actually do something about the 35,000+ Americans who die every year in traffic. If terrorists were taking out this many Americans we would lose our minds. The fact that we don’t take this seriously as a problem, literally is the problem.

  3. I don’t know. Germany and the UK have a car culture like we do. Top Gear (a car show) was one of the most popular shows in the UK.

  4. Ya. Public transportation is great, but there are times when it just doesn’t cut it. Going shopping? Unless you are carrying one small bag of groceries, you can’t use public transportation. If you are getting something a like a new tv of fridge, forget it. They are also more useful for when you have families. It is a lot easier to pick up and drop off kids in a car. How about a road trip?

  5. Um… Have you ever used public transit at all? I take a full-week’s groceries in my wheeled shopping tote onto buses all the time. Additionally, when I do purchase big-ticket items, such as televisions, you have this great service that most stores carry called DELIVERY?

  6. Handcarts and backpacks work great for larger shopping trips on foot/transit. I have one which doubles as a bike trailer, and has nice 16″ wheels so it’s easy to roll up the stairs onto a bus.

    Large appliances are infrequent purchases, and the stores that sell them generally offer delivery. Sure, it costs a bit, but not as much as owning a car.

    Plenty of families pick up kids in a bakfiets or similar bicycle, or don’t need to if they live within walking distance of the school.

    Amtrak is more fun than any road trip I’ve been on. If it doesn’t go where I want, I can always rent a car for special occasions – or go on a bicycle tour.

  7. These countries also have safety cultures, which we don’t. Designing the lived environment for safety is an assumption that we don’t make in the US.

  8. Well, it makes sense since a large part of the american city population lives in the suburbs = more car traffic, especially since features such as urban trains are lacking. However, it is strange to me, as an european, how do you manage to get in car accidents in the first place; I mean, you have much wider roads than in Europe and also a widespread highway system. In Europe, car accidents are more likely to happen since streets are much narrower with a lot of stuff on the side of the road (from parked cars that block the view of the sidewalk, to trees, buildings close to the street etc) and cities have more pedestrian activity than what I have seen in the USA. I am quite curious what causes most of these car accidents.

  9. Wider roads are actually more dangerous in an urban environment than narrow roads.

    What causes the majority of the accidents in the US? Carelessness, negligence, impatience, and distracted driving mixed with wide roads with sloping streamlined curves built into intersections engineered to make motorists feel comfortable speeding. Also, the requirements to get and retain your license to drive in the states is a joke.

    On top of that our car culture that has cultivated a tendency for people to literally drive everywhere they go regardless of the trip length. I walk or cycle to commute which is a 1 to 2 mile trip depending on if I’m in charge of dropping my son off at school on any given day. I have two coworkers that live 1 mile from work who drive every day in lieu of a ?20 minute walk or ?7 minute leisurely bike ride.

    I was hit while walking in a crosswalk on my way to work by a woman turning left this past week. The first thing out of her mouth was, “I didn’t see you!” obviously she didn’t see me, if she had bothered to look before making her turn she would have and hopefully yielded to the pedestrian with the right of way. I was hit due to negligence and impatience.

  10. The comparison isn´t of accidents, but fatalities. Road safety comes down to, e.g., designing the roads in a way that accidents don´t lead to fatalities. For instance by having physical barriers between opposing lanes on major roads, keeping down speeds by speed cameras and physical arrangements for traffic calming like chicanes, elevated crosswalks and narrow roundabouts.
    Apparently, Americans don´t value life that much…

  11. It is wonderful to have a commenter who can read other people’s minds to see whether or not they really care.

    But it is even more wonderful to see a commenter who is sure others have an agenda and who doesn’t realize that he himself has an even more obvious agenda.

  12. The link to NHTSA’s webpage on traffic deaths shows the annual fatalities as about 9000. There was a huge reduction just a few years ago. The data only goes back to 1981. I remember Motor Trend magazine from the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s bemoaning that 55,000 Americans were dying on the road every year. In 1970, the U.S. Census said there were about 200,000,000 people in our country. Today, the estimate is 330,000,000 people. The death rate per capita has thus fallen by a factor of 10 in these past 50 years.

    If we are too stuck on cars, please remember that President Obama took over General Motors in 2009 and gave around 20% of the company to the United Auto Workers union, free of charge. Taxpayers’ money was used to bail out GM. Even after government stake in GM was resold to new private owners, GMAC auto financing has remained under government control, perhaps under a new name.

    Subprime loans with repayment periods as long as 8 years are common, today. Interest rates are very low, sometimes even 0%. Americans are thus encouraged by the federal government to not only buy cars and trucks, but to buy bigger ones than they would have bought without the heavy subsidies.

    I have warned repeatedly on this blog and on others that if Americans are convinced to give up their cars, well-to-do auto workers shall lose their livelihood. Most of these UAW workers are black people. If thousands of well-to-do black people lose their livelihood, there shall be an angry campaign to blame White Supremacy (which barely exists in the U.S.) for results stemming from Environmentalism.

  13. Last time I bought a fridge I rode my bike to the store and picked out a fridge. The fridge was delivered by a guy driving a truck.

  14. The stats will differ somewhat by state and nationally, but opioid deaths in Michigan are greater than gun and traffic deaths COMBINED. The fatality rate per mile traveled is more than 75% safer today (1.2 per 100 M VMT) than in 1960 when I got my first license (5.1 per 100 M VMT). If you are in a car for about 15,000 miles/year, you will be killed in a car crash once in about 5,500 years. To suggest that traffic deaths with our 3+ trillion miles per year of travel are a crisis is just utter nonsense. Could we do better? Sure, but not with the sort of “sky is falling” nonsense of this useless article.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  15. It is apparently larger. Also doesn’t count deaths from transportation’s share of particulate pollution (which does include trucks which are somewhat necessary) which is estimated larger.

  16. I predict a continued rise in American roadway fatalities in the future despite the best efforts of roadway redesigns. Here are a few reasons:

    -The proliferation of SUVs, which cause more ped/bike deaths due to higher bumpers and encourage faster driving
    -Increasingly convoluted & distracting in-dash navigation/entertainment systems
    -Smart phone addiction (despite the best efforts of driving while txting laws)
    -Automated driving features, which are sold as “safety features” but reduce driver’s attention spans even further as they begin to depend on these automated systems for basic driving tasks
    -Liberalization of marijuana laws. Despite your politics on this issue, driving under the influence of a substance which profoundly alters ones mental state does not bode well for traffic safety.

  17. If anything is going to result in less cars being purchased, it’s going to be autonomous shared vehicles.

  18. Recent years have seen increases in traffic fatalities, particularly among pedestrians. Something needs to change. This blog contains many articles on how we could do better.

  19. I still don’t understand normalizing this by population, rather than number of trips/distance traveled? What’s the benefit of this, for any who might know.

    If you have a specific data point that is a clear outlier (looking at you, America), then wouldn’t you expect fatalities to be, as well?
    That is, if a large number of Americans drive a large proportion of the time, fatalities are higher but this doesn’t illuminate for me how statistically significant that difference is comparatively?

  20. Just because something is safer now than it was over 50 years ago, doesn’t mean it can’t do better. Pedestrians & cyclists need safer streets because even one car-caused death is one too many.

  21. You’re the one who seems to have an agenda. Car-related deaths are tragic and are caused by the road-rage obsessed egomaniacs that prioritize their own comfort over roadway safety. You obviously don’t care at all about trying to make streets more fare and equitable for everyone.

  22. I AGREE we can do better, but not by ignoring the fact that in most areas in the USA individual vehicles are the only practical way for most commuters, shoppers, tourists, commercial drivers to travel to most destinations. IF people live in major metro areas and are fairly close to BOTH their residences and their destinations, many will in fact use transit – which is great. But that is a minority of people overall.

    Most vehicle crashes are proportional to usage. In recent years, many cities have encouraged more pedestrian and cyclist travel – so the rates of those crashes have gone up due to the higher usage proportions. It is also likely, as reported, that the higher proportion of trucks and SUVs are a factor – and most truck & SUV owners would be better off driving conventional sedans, hatchbacks, and station wagons that are lighter, less costly, get better fuel economy, and precent fewer risks to pedestrians. Go to Europe and the proportions of SUVs & trucks are tiny compared to the USA where buyers have “bought” clever marketing ploys to get them to buy vehicles that are worse for their needs.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  23. I appreciate the actuarial perspective, but I think we have to look at the raw numbers. That we expose ourselves to 3+ trillion miles a year is part of the problem.

  24. Starting in many ways with Henry Ford in the early 1900s, the ability and affordability to travel wherever and whenever we want to work, shop, travel, worship, conduct business, and just enjoy our country transformed the USA to become the leader in the free world. Those that choose to live, work, shop, worship, etc. within a small range of distances have the full right to do so. Those of us who choose not to constrain our travels also have the full right to do so. It is called freedom.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  25. Interesting insight…unfortunately, negligence and impatience is a common trait I see in some European countries also… guess that driving isn’t for everyone (and maybe it shouldn’t be). For a couple of years I used to cycle everyday to university or to different locations across the city and recently, I mostly walk to my destinations. Now, I also have a driving license for some years, and I confess that at the start of my driving experience I also used to be impatient and had a tendancy to speed.

    However, after some, not so recent, episodes when I almost got ran over on the crosswalks by impatient drivers and got cut off on my bicycle by careless drivers, I started to be more careful and patient in my driving. Also, after seeing some gruesome photos and videos of car accident victims, I lost my stomach for speed and started paying more attention to road conditions. In the end, that impatience will not get you faster to your destinations (if it does, it’s insignificant); I only wish that other drivers might start to take these facts into consideration.

    Also, regardless of what road safety solutions we might implement, I also believe that the starting point to solve or at least diminish these problems is better commuting education. As you said, maybe you don’t need to take the car everywhere you go; you could walk, cycle, take the bus, tram, taxi etc. And most importantly, maybe not all people should drive, and in that sense, harder driving lessons and exams spread across a longer period (a full year, for example) with a couple of years interval reexamination might just do the trick. Then we would also have fewer cars on the roads and those that drive are responsible and experienced so theoretically, road fatalies should also diminish.

    But in the mean time, I don’t see goverments interested in tackling the start of the problem, but more concerned about the end result (fines, jail terms, investments in more road infrastructure)…who knows, maybe the tide will change eventually. Safe journeys!

  26. Hans Selye, you forgot, “God Bless America” (gag) Come on, this sounds like a middle school marketing campaign. Once again, you reveal yourself as an unabashed shill. But hey, I suppose it is your job.

  27. Yes, I’ve see, SUVs climbing rocky mountain roads, and convertibles cruising down a empty ocean front highway at sunset … too bad it is only in commercials.
    Car dependency is well documented (I could cite but I suspect you know the lit), and it is clear that many (perhaps most) people sit in money wasting, pollution causing, people killing traffic because a LACK of freedom, a lack of viable alternative.
    There is freedom to, and freedom from (Isaiah Berlin). Freedom to travel as your heart
    desires, and freedom from being forced to drive by poor urban design, from being sickened or killed by those (supposedly) exercising their freedom to drive. Both
    freedoms are legit, but in dire need of better balance. As it now stands, “freedom for the pike, means death for the minnow”.

  28. I understand your view, but there are many places in the USA where car use is required for reasonable mobility. Other places in many major metro areas can be navigated pretty well with only occasional rental car use for trips. It is OUR choice which environment we choose to live in – and we don’t like big city life.

    My wife and I both drive under 2 liter engine vehicles that get 30 mpg overall, and we think the SUV or monster-engine vehicle crazes are nuts for most people who do not need such vehicles.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  29. As long as we continue to lead the world in VMT, this loss of life will not be a concern of the National Motorists Association. Nothing will restrict our freedom to drive, not even human suffering.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  30. Isn’t that just an excuse to downplay the issues? Quite frankly, I don’t know, that’s why I am asking.

  31. This was not my post – it is a fake. I was en route from Florida at the time and also would never phrase my comments in this way.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  32. It is a fair question, Max Wyss.

    My problem with this and similar articles rests with the refusal of the writers to acknowledge the fact that driving has become massively safer over the last 50+ years. Given the 3.2 trillion miles a year that Americans drive, driving is a very safe activity – and 75+% safer than when I got my first license in 1960.

    40,000 fatalities a year is indeed too many and could be reduced if traffic laws and enforcement procedures could be focused only on safety and not on revenue. It would also help to scrap the US federal vehicle safety rules and replace them with the UN-ECE rules that are superior.

    I would first ask how many of the younger fatalities were not properly restrained in vehicles or did not exercise reasonable cautions when walking or biking. The same questions could be asked of adult victims who failed to take reasonable self-preservation actions that might well have prevented their fatalities. Traffic safety is the joint responsibility of ALL road users, not just the vehicle drivers.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  33. What has definitely helped to reduce the fatalities is the “passive safety”, which I understand as means to make accidents less severe. Much better car design to protect the drivers, crumple zones, seatbelts etc. belong to this category. These improvements have been done by the car companies (in the US “great” targets for litigation.

    Where progress has been way less convincing is in the “active safety” field, which comprises means to prevent accidents. The car makers can not provide that much to it; some assistance systems can do so. The biggest contributor to the active safety sits behind the wheel. And here, as sad as it is to say, the average USAn driver is a problem. Another component is street design (which is one of the key points of this blog, IMHO), whose main goal is to make “(car) traffic flow” as inconvenienced and fast as possible, and if something improves the safety of the street, it is more accidential than planned. We occasionally read about some progress, but it is rather rare.

    To get current numbers further down, to something in the mid-field of the developed world, improving the active safety is what has to be tackled. IMHO, a key factor is driver education, which is training of skill, but also training of mindset, and sense of responsibility. Yes, there is also training sense of responsibility for everyone participating in traffic, but the “strongest” participant must take the biggest amount.

  34. It seems that this only considers the ~32,000 people/year crushed by cars. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Another ~53,000/year die from emissions from automobiles but that’s more distal and less dramatic. What amazes me is that there doesn’t seem to be any accounting of how many excess deaths result from virtually eliminating incidental exercise in a species that evolved to walk 10 km/day. Auto centrism is a scourge that rivals smoking.

  35. Driving has gotten much safer for people *in* the car while deaths of vulnerable road users are among the highest in the developed world *and rising*. It’s effectively legal to kill someone as long as you do it in a car. Car weight, speed and snout shape are the biggest determinant of whether cars kill pedestrians and cyclists. Not whether they were wearing a foam hat. Motorists fail to yield at marked crosswalks ~85% of the time. Stop with the victim blaming.

  36. Can you provide a URL for your reference of ~85% failures at crosswalks? It is dramatically different than the NHTSA reports I have read on the contributing causes of pedestrian fatalities.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  37. I have said many times the US should scrap federal FMVSS safety rules for vehicles and adopt the better UN-ECE rules.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  38. I did spend 30 years in the car business from 1967-1997, but my being in that industry ended over 20 years ago. I went into the health insurance business and my advocacy for the NMA is totally an unpaid volunteer activity.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  39. A shorter life is a small price to pay for all the freedom we get from cars.
    Especially if those lives that are shortened are other people’s, not the drivers that cause the problem.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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