Nearly every year we hear that the number of people killed by people driving cars is down from the year before. That’s good right?
The good news is that the trend has indeed continued downward since the number killed peaked in 1972. Nationally, only 33,561 people were killed in 2012 and 2.36 million were injured.
This all sounds pretty good. Until we stop being insular and comparing ourselves to only ourselves.
The chart above compares the U.S. to several Western European nations (those with data available by age). Suddenly, the U.S. doesn’t look too good.
Sadly, this isn’t just a point in time that we happened to look bad. When we look at how we’ve fared over time, our trend by itself looks good, but over the same time period, other countries have far outpaced us. The red line in the following chart shows the U.S. fatality rate. The grey, green, and blue are for the same European countries we looked at above.
We were quite average until the early 1970’s. With increased focus on safety in general, DUI, safer cars, and increased seatbelt use, every nation began to see significant declines during the 1970’s.
The U.S. though did not see the same rate of improvement as most of these other countries and by the late 1970’s, while most countries had made significant progress, we had not. Through the 80’s the gains by other countries continued to outpace those of the U.S.
A sad milestone occurred in 1987 when we achieved the highest rate of children killed by drivers of motor vehicles (9 per 100,000 total population) of all 20 OECD countries except Portugal. We have since not only not relinquished our position but the lack-of-achievement gap has widened.
Our current rate is what Sweden had achieved by 1982. The Netherlands had achieved this by 1993, Germany by 1994, and Denmark and Finland by 1995. We are 20 to 30 years behind these other countries in providing safety for our children and at our current rate it will take us 38 years to get where they are today, much less where they will likely be by then. It’s not a competition though. What this tells us is that there is no reason that so many of us and our children need to be killed every year.
It’s worse In context. Throughout all of these decades we’ve had the world’s leading healthcare and trauma system. A child involved in a crash in the U.S. likely has a better chance of survival and of a better overall outcome than in any other country. Yet we have so many more crashes that our better healthcare system can’t make up the difference.
Children and adults in these other countries are also much more likely to play, walk, or ride bicycles (without helmets) in the street than our children are. By the reasoning of many, these countries should have massively higher child death rates than we do. But they don’t.
Why Are We Failing Our Children?
Are we bad drivers? Have our traffic engineers given us a more dangerous road system? Are there other factors? The answer to all of these is yes.
Anecdotally, Europeans who come to the U.S. are nearly unanimous in their criticisms of how dangerously we drive. One group of Germans gave me an earful about how people in the U.S. will slowly block the left lane on 694 but then drive at breakneck speeds through residential neighborhoods.
Studies by the CDC and others have indicated that distracted driving, likely the leading cause of crashes and fatalities, is worse in the U.S. We are about two to three times as likely to talk on a cell phone or text while driving and these rates appear to be declining in Europe faster than in the U.S. DUI also plays a role and is much less socially acceptable outside the U.S.
All of us (all of the countries above, including the U.S.) had similarly growing car cultures in to the 1960’s. However, while we continued on to become ever more car-centric in the U.S. and city planners and engineers began focusing exclusively on providing a high levels of service (LOS) for cars to the complete exclusion of all other modes (pedestrian, bicycle, etc.), other countries, seeing the high death rates, took a step back with a slower and more deliberative and balanced approach.
We ended up with wider lanes, more lanes (particularly at intersections), straighter roads, wider turns and slip lanes, and intersections. All things that lead to faster driving, more crashes, more injurious crashes, and much less safety for pedestrians crossing all of these high speed lanes.
They have narrower lanes, fewer lanes, more curves, tighter turns, roundabouts instead of intersections, and considerable pedestrian and bicycle facilities. This results in slower and more attentive driving (except on motorways where they drive considerably faster, but still attentive), fewer crashes, and a much safer and welcoming environment for people who are walking or riding a bicycle.
And, for all the supposed benefits of our roads, we don’t have shorter commute times and our commutes are believed to be much more stressful.
There’s one more important bit. The above explains the general trends for the improvements most European countries have seen that we have not. It doesn’t explain the more exceptional achievements of our four green lines.
In the 1970‘s, The Netherlands saw angry protests from parents and others over the number of children killed every year by drivers. Calls of “Stop The Child Murder” had an impact and Netherlands planners reacted by going a step further than other European countries by giving bicycle riders near equal billing with motorists. Surrounding countries including Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Germany took similar approaches. The result is quite obvious in the green and blue lines above.
Besides making it much safer for pedestrians and bicycles, this approach also reduced the number of cars, trucks, and buses on the roads which itself decreased the number of crashes and fatalities.
When politicians, traffic engineers, and city planners are asked about safety improvements or adding safe pedestrian and bicycle facilities to planned road projects, the response is often that these will slow drivers down and increase the time it takes for drivers to reach their destination. Sadly, about 400 people in Minnesota this year, including many children, will never make it to their planned destination.
Few of our children will make it to graduation without at least one schoolmate being killed by someone driving a car.
Are these deaths simply the cost of our mobile society?
Are the benefits of our road system, if any, vs those of Sweden, Germany, or The Netherlands worth killing so many of our children?
 Except Greece which did not see any real decline until 1979.
 Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States
 Since 1987 the only thing that has saved us from being worst of all OECD countries has been the recent inclusion of several Eastern European countries and even that was of minimal assistance since most have a better safety record than the U.S.
 Germany is the European leader in trauma care and many in the medical and EMS community in the U.S. believe that they are on par with the U.S. or perhaps even a better, particularly their EMS capabilities. Overall end outcomes are difficult to measure but do not appear to be up to the same level as the U.S.
 About 2,500 others will be delayed several days, weeks, months, or years recovering from injuries, 45,000 will be delayed several hours due to minor injuries, and several hundred thousand will be delayed in traffic tie-ups behind all of these crashes. There is also a monetary cost to these crashes, estimated to have cost Minnesotans about $1.7 billion in 2013 alone.