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

speed map

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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.

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

  1. Agreed with neroden. You definitely don’t represent me, or any driver I know.

    “Two-thirds (68%) of drivers feel that *other drivers’* speeding is a major threat to their own personal safety.” (which is funny)

    From a 2004 NHTSA report on a national survey

  2. It is perfectly possible for cities to re-design the main collectors and arterials that carry the bulk of the commuting, shopping, visitor, tourist, and commercial traffic to reduce speeds below the levels those main roads were designed for. The cities just have to be willing to accept the potential negatives. We think it unwise to do this in many cases, but those are decisions cities can take.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  3. I am getting tired of repeating the same things over and over, but the NMA is technically a for-profit corporation. Most of our revenue comes from membership dues from our grass roots membership plus a little bit of advertising in our quarterly newsletter. Whatever “profits” we make get plowed back into our projects. NO ONE pays us to lobby for anything. Our members often lobby state and local officials regarding pending legislation, but that is NOT for any profits. At some point you MIGHT agree to read what I say, take it for the reality it is, and stop making foolish & false accusations.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  4. Thanks for another careful and knowledgable reply, Jerry.

    My point is that only 85th percentile posted limits will get proper voluntary compliance. Those set below will not – ever. And no city will apply enough enforcement by officers or cameras to reduce the speeds of most cars well below the 85th percentile speeds that most drivers find to be safe and comfortable – and which ARE safe and comfortable almost all the time – because then the enforcement becomes a huge cost factor in the budgets with almost no offsetting ticket revenue.

    You CAN re-engineer the collectors and arterials to operate at lower actual 85th percentile speeds than they were originally designed for – if the cities are willing to accept the possible negatives.

    School zones CAN AND SHOULD have lower limits for up to an hour before & after school plus in lunch hours if kids are allowed off the grounds. These limited lower limit hours must have flashing lights at the lower limit signs with the hours of operation – and they will be pretty well complied with.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  5. We represent all drivers, whether they know it or not. Our tiny membership and budget would be seen as laughable by most people – except that we accomplish a great deal with dedicated unpaid people like myself. If representing 75+ years of unbiased research is “extreme”, then I am happy to be “extreme”.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  6. “This base speed limit is adjusted according to traffic and infrastructure conditions such as pedestrian use, median presence, etc.”

    Using criteria like this to reduce the posted limits below the 85th percentile speed – KNOWING FOR CERTAIN AND IN ADVANCE THEY WILL NOT REDUCE THE 85TH SPEEDS – is lunacy.

    The 85th speed is XX mph, but we will set the limit at XX minus 10 mph for various factors, knowing the actual 85th speed will remain at XX mph – perhaps plus or minus 1 or 2 mph. Idiotic.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  7. A huge percentage of drivers find their driving at safe and comfortable speeds up to about the 85th percentile is OK, but those behaviors are wrong for other drivers. It is ludicrous.

    That is why limits must be based on the actual behavior of the super majority of drivers (85%) NOT on any meaningless surveys or polls.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  8. I’m not surprised you have this backwards.

    “In general, there is not strong evidence that the 85th percentile speed within a given traffic flow equates to the speed with the lowest crash involvement rate for all road types”

    National Transportation Safety Board, 2017

  9. So now standard engineering practice as laid out by the NHTSA is lunacy? Interesting.

    Here’s the World Health Organization: “Studies suggest that a 1 km/h decrease in travelling speed would lead to a 2–3% reduc-tion in road crashes.”

    I guess some people don’t think reducing crashes by several percent is ludicrous

  10. A strained definition, leaving them many “outs”. It is same sort of gobbledegook that you find between the 1992 and 1997 texts of the Parker study – with almost entirely the same set of data panels. The 1992 text tells what the data panels showed = A. The tortured double & triple negatives 1997 text (that the FHWA insisted on for publication because the real conclusions showed the NHTSA/FHWA propaganda about the National Maximum Speed Limit was mostly lies) attempts to convince the reader that A = B. Any reader who compares the data panels quickly realizes that A = A and the 1997 text is junk.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  11. After dozens and dozens of posts you still believe that lower posted limits = lower travel speeds and that is simply false.

    Write this down: Posted limits have almost no effect on travel speeds. Now write it another 5,000 times until you get it.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  12. It’s hilarious to me how you’re all about engineering practices and the research when it supports your agenda — and it rarely does — but the instant anyone points out how your positions are counter to accepted practices or established research, suddenly all that is “propaganda.”

  13. Perhaps in a few areas it has, but in many it has not.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  14. I don’t think you have any real concept of the value of for-profit enforcement and the allies it creates.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  15. Yes, everybody who disagrees with you: researchers, engineers, safety advocates, professional organizations, the laws of physics… they’ve all been corrupted by the “for-profit enforcement racket.” We’re lucky to have the (coincidentally for-profit) lobbyists at the NMA to tell us all the truth.

  16. Let me rephrase: why do you think the consensus of researchers and engineers is that speed camera enforcement, when used, typically saves lives?

  17. Because there are too many examples where it doesn’t.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  18. That’s why the consensus is that speed enforcement cameras save lives? Because maybe occasionally they don’t?

  19. So long as so many governments use speed cameras as for-profit rackets in speed traps, they should be banned by law in every state. Several states ban them now and many more never passed legislation to permit their use – which is effectively a ban.

    Maybe – if all collectors, arterials, county roads, rural highways and freeways were required to have posted limits no lower than the 50th percentile speed of free flowing traffic under good conditions, that might make the cameras more acceptable to more people and more states. Setting limits so that more than 50% of drivers are arbitrarily defined as violators or criminals, the temptation to enforce for profits is too strong for many governments to resist.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  20. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/12/18/americans-say-theres-not-much-appeal-big-city-living-why-do-so-many-us-live-there/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a291fb6f43ff

    Where people live versus where they want to live. I’m in the small city group and want to stay there. My city has the hospitals, culture, restaurants, libraries, and colleges that make it a great place to live – but without most of the hassles of big cities. I can almost always drive anywhere in the city within 15 minutes. That is probably why it is rated to be the top small college town.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  21. When you call setting speed limits based on safety “arbitrary,” you make the NMA sound very fringe.

    If we hadn’t spent decades letting motorists get away with breaking the law — even adjusting the laws to accommodate lawbreaking behavior — perhaps motorists would be more aware of how breaking speed limit laws makes them more likely to die and more likely to kill.

  22. Again you ignore the first 5,000 rules on speed limits – they have almost no effect on the actual travel speeds. Engineering from wishful thinking rather than reality does not work. If the 85th percentile speed is 42 mph on a collector, it will be between 39 and 45 mph (but most likely between 41 and 43) regardless of whether the limit is set at 50, 45, 40, 35, 30, or 25. Until you understand that, all your conclusions will be incorrect.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  23. I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I don’t think elections should be about who gets to dictate.

    If one is opposed to land use and transportation policy that is dictatorial, then correcting the heavy-handed and anti-democratic infrastructure approach of the previous century makes sense to me.

  24. Perhaps try different terms than dictate or dictatorial; they seem to create confusion for you. How ’bout elections have consequences and if those who get elected displease the majority then they’ll be replaced. Nothing anti-democratic about that.

  25. Freedom for motorists is much more important than a few thousand unnecessary deaths every month.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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