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4 Reasons the U.S. Trails the World in Road Safety

4 Reasons the U.S. Trails the World in Road Safety
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Americans pay a great deal of money for their roads — from taxes on their gasoline to parts of their general income — but they don't get a whole lot of road safety in return. A report [PDF] from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, released last month, compared road fatality statistics in the United States with those in Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Guess which per capita fatality rate was about three times greater than the others.

With so much love for roads, what is the United States neglecting when it comes to road safety? To find an answer, researchers Juha Luoma and Michael Sivak dug a bit deeper into the numbers. They found several contributing factors, including relatively loose speeding, seat belt, and drunk driving enforcement, but the biggest reason was staring everyone in the face: Americans drive a lot more than others.

From 2006 to 2010 there were an average of roughly 37,600 annual road deaths in the United States. (On the positive side, the figures declined each year.) The annual averages in Sweden (387), the Netherlands (659) and the U.K. (roughly 2,650) were considerably lower, but of course so are those populations. In the measure of fatalities per million people, however, the United States didn't fare any better: that rate was about 124, compared to roughly 40 in the other nations.

By other fatality measures the United States holds up slightly better. The rate of 146 deaths per million cars is only about double that of the leading European countries (a bit above 70 on average). Meantime the rate of 7 deaths per billion kilometers traveled is maybe a point and a half above the other countries, which hover just below 5 on average. To the chart:

Much of the problem, according to Luoma and Sivak, is how much Americans drive. The average vehicle distance per person in the United States during the time period studied was roughly 15,500 kilometers. The United Kingdom, by comparison, averaged a bit more than 8,300 kilometers, with Sweden (8,800) and Netherlands (7,700) in the same ballpark.

A closer comparison with England found that the greater driving distance per licensed driver in the United States was the "main factor" in the safety disparity. For 2009, if America had the same fatality rate as the U.K., then nearly 23,000 lives would have been saved. Of these, a little more than half (12,345) were the result of distance driven per licensed driver.

Urban roads played a significant role. About half the distance driven in 2009 came on city roads and streets. All told they accounted for nearly 12,500 deaths — a little more than a third of the yearly total. (Limited-access highways, in contrast, proved rather safe.)

Of course there are many factors at play when it comes to road fatalities. Luoma and Sivak also considered a number of road safety laws and found the United States a bit behind the curve on these too. Americans tolerate blood-alcohol levels a bit higher than some comparison countries, have slightly worse rates of seat belt use, and drive a lot faster. (One survey of 30 states from 2006 found that three-quarters of drivers sped on urban arterial roads — compared to just 8 percent of drivers in the U.K.)

So where does that leave things? Luoma and Sivak offer a few humble recommendations: lower the acceptable blood-alcohol levels a bit, reduce speed limits (especially in cities), and improve seat belt laws. Above all, to address the larger problem of driving distance, they suggest implementing stronger urban planning measures (presumably increasing density and mixed-use development) and building better mass transit systems:

The countermeasures to be recommended would lead to only limited restrictions on driver behavior or privacy, but would likely result in substantial benefits in terms of human life saved, suffering avoided, and expenses avoided.

These are modest proposals, to say the least, but they come with a big catch: whether or not you think they're acceptable probably depends on how much you drive.

Top image: Christopher Parypa / Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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