Why Are U.S. Roadways Getting More Dangerous, While Other Countries Are Getting Safer?
While other developed countries are getting safer overall for drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists, roadways in the United States are getting more dangerous. Why is that, and what can we do about it?
The Law Office of Chain | Cohn | Clark has seen the dramatic increase in recent years of crashes involving motor vehicles, pedestrian, and cyclists while representing victims of these incidents. We analyze what the numbers show among high-income developed countries and roadway safety, and what can be done about the safety issues in our own nation.
In 2019, the population-based motor vehicle crash death rate in the United States (11.1 per 100,000 population) was the highest among 29 high-income countries. The population-based motor vehicle crash death rate decreased from 2015 to 2019 in 22 countries, but not in the United States.
The statistics and comparisons between countries is dramatic: 11.4 Americans per 100,000 died in crashes in 2020. Compare that to Spain (2.9), Israel (3.3) and New Zealand (6.3). And unlike most developed nations, U.S. roadways have grown more deadly during the last two decades, especially for pedestrians. Last year saw the most pedestrians killed in the United States in 40 years, and deaths among those biking rose 44% from 2010 to 2020.
The gap wasn’t always the case. In 1979, the risk of dying in a vehicle crash in United States (23 per 100,000 people) fell below that of France and only a bit above West Germany and South Korea. During the 1970s and 1980s, roadways across the United States and Western Europe grew safer with the adoption of seatbelts, airbags and improved vehicle designs. Our country’s “New Car Assessment Program” launched in 1983 offered a groundbreaking model to educate consumers about the crashworthiness of various car models, influencing both buyer decisions and carmaker designs. Other countries soon emulated.
But in the last 30 years, the United States nation has not kept pace with traffic death rates falling in Europe, east Asia and Canada. In 2021, as America hit a 16-year high for fatalities, Japan and Norway posted the lowest number of road deaths since the 1940s.
Pedestrian deaths in the United States rose over 40% from 2010-18, more than twice the pace of any other member country (most of which saw a decline), according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Canada is an equally spacious and car-centric as the United States, but the likelihood of dying in a crash is 60% lower.
Uniquely, the US has seen larger SUVs and pickup trucks dominate its domestic car market — the weight and height of these vehicles places other road users in greater danger. Research has linked the ascent of SUVs to the surge in pedestrian deaths. Larger vehicles are gaining popularity in other countries as well, but higher gasoline taxes, as well as weight-based fees adopted by countries like France, have slowed their adoption.
National policy choices can affect road safety outcomes in subtler ways as well. Comparatively low fuel taxes encourage more driving, as do land use patterns that force many residents to commute to distant job centers. Unlike many of its peers, the United States saw a steady uptick in vehicle miles traveled per capita during the 2010s, creating more chances to crash. We also saw a decline in public transit usage even prior to the pandemic, in contrast to rising ridership in most of the rest of the world. Because bus and rail trips are orders of magnitude safer than driving, mode shift away from public transportation will increase road deaths.
French people are much more likely to walk than Americans for short-distance trips. Although only about 3 percent of Americans walk to work, more than 6 percent of French people do. Because there are more pedestrians in relative terms in France, that country should intuitively see more pedestrian deaths per capita than the US. But the opposite is true. Although in the late 1970s, France had significantly more pedestrian fatalities in relative terms compared with the United States, as of 2021, it had less than one-third as many deaths per capita.
American efforts to build cleaner alternative to motor vehicles such as high-speed rail — which is common across Japan, China, and many European Union countries — have consumed billions of dollars with little to show for it.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
Europe, for example, has created many more car-free and car-light urban neighborhoods than the US. Since motor vehicles play a role in virtually all roadway deaths, their removal from the urban core is a big boost for safety. Meanwhile, countries like Canada and France have embraced automatic traffic cameras — devices that are banned in many U.S. states — to deter speeding and running red lights. Likewise, safe infrastructure enhancements like roundabouts and road diets have been adopted more enthusiastically in other countries.
The European Union added pedestrian safety tests to crash ratings over two decades ago, and Japan, China and Australia now conduct them as well. The United States still does not.
Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, for instance, has said he is targeting a 90% reduction in crashes through Autopilot, the company’s driver assistance feature. And that’s before “true” self-driving cars supposedly make road deaths a problem of the past. The safety benefits of autonomous driving remain speculative.
Other countries are not waiting for technology to save lives. In Helsinki, the city focused on slowing down cars. France, too, has reaped a safety dividend from restricting vehicles from so many urban areas over the last 30 years. And in Japan, a ban on overnight street parking makes pedestrians and cyclists more visible to drivers.
“Many of the best solutions are quite simple. Build slower streets. Penalize reckless drivers quickly and reliably. Use regulations and taxes — on vehicle weight as well as fuel — to nudge the car industry toward smaller, safer models,” said David Zipper, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government.
France, whose per capita death rates were similar as recently as the 1990s. The French government’s investment in better enforcement against speeding, reductions in speed limits, and creation of safer walking routes, such as in pedestrianized city centers, have successfully reduced traffic deaths there far more quickly than stateside, saving thousands of lives. American states and cities can look to the French example for approaches to improving road safety.
As spelled out by the Urban Institute, our country’s states and cities seeking to ensure safer roadway conditions can consider adopting the following policies:
- Reducing speed limits, both on major roadways and within city centers. Pedestrians are much less likely to die after being struck by a car when vehicles are travelling less than 30 miles per hour. Car occupants are also safer when cars are slower.
- Enforcing speed limits through automatic speed cameras on highways throughout the country, a national priority in France since 2002.
- Creating pedestrianized, nontraffic areas throughout city centers and in special locations, such as near schools. This urban infrastructure shift has made it possible to walk around many neighborhoods without fear of being run over.
- Encouraging a vehicular fleet of smaller cars, which would reduce injury severity for pedestrians.
“The closer you look, the clearer it becomes that the US traffic safety crisis is not a reflection of geography or culture. It is the result of policy decisions that elevated fast car travel and automaker profits over roadway safety. Other countries made different choices, and they’ve saved lives as a result,” Zipper said.
If you or someone you know is injured in an accident at the fault of someone else, or injured on the job no matter whose fault it is, contact the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Clark by calling (661) 323-4000, or fill out a free consultation form, text, or chat with us at chainlaw.com.