While US roads can be scary places, they are safer than they used to be. Vox, the new Ezra Klein venture, provides this figure showing motor vehicle deaths over time:
In the US in a given year, you’re now about half as likely to die in a car crash in a given year as compared to the 1950s-1980s. That’s good! And it comes from such improvements as airbags, high seat-belt use, and reduced drunk driving. In terms of the difference in the number of yearly deaths, it’s down to 33,561 in 2012 vs 55,043 in 1969. Think about that for a second. Thirty-three thousand people die per year in America due to car crashes. Despite the improvements, that’s still insane. As Noah Smith noted recently, three times as many people die from car crashes each year than died in the terrorist activities of 9/11 and the two wars that followed (and think of the money that's been spent to prevent another terrorist attack).
But, what can be done about vehicle deaths? Are there countries to look to that are doing better? The Streetsblog reviews a fabulous report from the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group and provides some comparisons. Here is the percentage decrease in road fatalities from 2000 to 2011 across several countries:
You’ll notice that the US decreased its number of yearly road fatalities by ~25% during that time period (one of the slowest improvement rates of any developed country), while most other rich countries decreased their yearly death toll by ~50%. Where does that leave us today? In 2011 the US had a yearly death rate of 10.4 people per 100k whereas the rate for Great Britain was 3.1 people/100k (see Table 3 here). To put that more bluntly, if in this country people died in car crashes at the same rate as in Britain, ~20,000 lives would be saved each year!
Could you imagine what would happen if 20,000 US citizens were killed by terrorists? The country would freak out. So, if death is to be avoided no matter the cause, why aren't people pushing their politicians to do something about transportation safety? (Note that this high death rate makes auto-fatalities the number one cause of death for those from 5-34 in the US.) So what have other counties done to reduce their motor vehicle death rates?
In the UK, 20 mph zones have been steadily growing since the turn of the century, and automated traffic enforcement is saving lives. The Dutch abandoned a street design philosophy based on “forgiving” errant drivers (which America embraced), shifting to an emphasis on walkable, bikeable streets. Japan has perhaps the world’s best transit networks, making driving less necessary. Germany is a pioneer in traffic-calming street design. Sweden, as the Economist recently reported, cut pedestrian fatalities in half over the last five years with a strategy that included low speed limits in urban areas and building 12,600 safer street crossings.Considering the great outcomes other countries are seeing, this is low-hanging fruit. Why isn't anyone talking about the 30,000 people that will die next year in the US due to this? To be honest, YOU may know some of those that will die. We all might, and yet this goes on year after year. WHY?