Why the U.S. Leads the Developed World on Traffic Deaths

speed map

SB Donation NYC header 2

A new report on global traffic deaths illustrates exactly why the U.S. trails the developed world on traffic safety: we drive too much and our laws are too permissive of deadly behavior.

The global report from the World Health Organization — which reviewed laws and crashes in 175 nations — explains that U.S.’s traffic fatality rate is 12.4 deaths per 100,000 — or about 50 percent higher than similar nations in Western Europe, plus Canada, Australia and Japan.

About 1.3 million people are being killed globally by traffic crashes every year, a huge proportion of them pedestrians. Traffic deaths are now the leading cause of death globally for those between the ages of 5 and 29.

Previous studies have revealed how much more driving Americans do, with roughly 8,800 kilometers per capita, versus 4,300 in Canada, 7,000 in Germany and less than 1,700 in Japan.

But the World Health Organization’s international comparisons show the United State’s safety policies are seriously out of line with the rest of the developed world. Here’s a look:

Bad seat belt laws

WHO map 1-2

U.S. law does not require seatbelt use in the back seat, unlike the overwhelming majority of the world. Seat belts decrease injury and death risk by 50 percent in the front seat and 25 percent in the back seat, according to the U.N. health organization.

The U.S.’s seat-belt-wearing rate has improved to 90 percent. But peer nations are doing better. In Canada, the seat belt wearing rate is 95 percent. That means our non-compliance rate is double that of Canada.

Drunk driving laws

WHO drunk

Our drunk driving laws are also too lenient compared to peer nations and compared to WHO recommendations. Many studies have shown that driving is impaired at lower blood alcohol concentration levels than 0.08. WHO recommends enforcing drunk driving laws at a low 0.05 BAC, like most of Western Europe, plus Canada, Australia, Brazil and China.

Canada, for example, also imposes stricter penalties on drivers caught violating the law. Some of the countries, like Sweden, with the best traffic safety records, control alcohol sales strictly.

Car standards

vehicle standards map

The U.S. also lags world leaders in vehicle safety, falling short of the standards established by United Nations. We have reported extensively, for example, about how the U.S (under Trump) has resisted adding safety features to vehicles that would help protect pedestrians in crashes, even as their fatality rates soar.

Speed demons

speed map

Finally, the U.S. fails to control driver speed as well as other nations. For speed control laws to work even moderately well, the WHO says urban street speeds must be strictly limited to about 31 miles per hour. In the U.S., localities often can’t adjust their speed limits but need state-level permission, another red flag for WHO. Worse, many localities don’t even start handing out tickets until drivers exceed the posted speed limit by more than 10 mph.

Canada, Western Europe, Australia, even China and Mexico have stricter controls on speeding than we do. Some safety officials in the U.S. like the National Transportation Safety Board have sounded the alarm that lack of progress on speeding is a major factor in the U.S.’s deteriorating traffic safety record. In recent years, we’ve actually gone backward with 30 states raising speed limits on highways to 70 mph since 1995, often with deadly results.

The WHO’s 2018 Global Status of Road Safety report highlights other safety failures as well. Our motorcycle helmet laws are worse than Russia and India. Our child restraint laws, which only apply to children until age 4, are more lenient than the WHO recommends and worse than all of Western Europe.

The findings comport with what Canadian traffic safety expert Neil Arason told Streetsblog about why Canada’s traffic safety record is so much better than the U.S. Our laws are just too lenient — we value “freedom” over safety (people’s lives) — and we don’t have enough alternatives to driving, like high-quality urban transit.

SB Donation NYC header 2

It’s our annual donation drive! Please give.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

America Has a Terrible Traffic Safety Record Because We Drive Too Much

|
Even though the U.S. traffic fatality rate per mile driven has fallen by two-thirds in the last 50 years, America today still has the deadliest road system per capita in the developed world. Much of the improvement from safer driving and better emergency care has been wiped out by increases in total traffic. The American approach to traffic safety has emphasized seatbelt use, vehicle standards, […]
2010s-MV-Deaths5

America’s Traffic Death Toll Is a National Disgrace

|
More than 40,000 Americans were killed in traffic last year, according to new estimates from the National Safety Council, the worst toll in a decade. The U.S. transportation system claims far more lives each year than peer countries. If America achieved the same fatality rate as the UK, more than 30,000 lives would be saved each year.

America’s Progress on Street Safety Is Pathetic

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

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

|
The number of annual traffic deaths in America is heading in the wrong direction, climbing back 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.