Why Are We Killing Our Children with Cars?

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.

Road fatalities, children, by country

This chart shows the rate of children under 15 killed by motorists per year averaged over a 5 year period. Bars indicate the number of deaths per 100,000 total population for each country for each year.

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.

road fatalities, children, by country

How were these countries able to reduce the number of children killed by motor vehicles so much more than the United States? The red line is the United States, blue is Sweden, and the green lines are Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, and Germany.

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[1] 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[2]. We have since not only not relinquished our position but the lack-of-achievement gap has widened[3].

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[4]. 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.

“Stop de Kindermoord" ("Stop the Child Murder") protests in Amsterdam. (Photo: BicycleDutch)

“Stop de Kindermoord” (“Stop the Child Murder”) protests in Amsterdam. (Photo: BicycleDutch)

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.

Conclusion

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[5].

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?


[1] Except Greece which did not see any real decline until 1979.

[2] Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.


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25 Responses to Why Are We Killing Our Children with Cars?

  1. Alex Bauman
    Alex Bauman March 25, 2014 at 9:34 am #

    “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.”

    I think this is an important factor in fatality rates, especially for children. The Germanic countries have made a concerted effort to blanket their cities in living streets, where the people who live along the street get priority (these are related to shared space streets and the word Woonerf is applied to them in the Netherlands I believe, but they are not always shared space streets). This is what Tom Hanks could not understand, which I mocked him for as a personification of America:

    http://gettingaroundmpls.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/jim-lovell-visits-planet-woonerf-doesnt-get-it/

    • Jeff Klein March 25, 2014 at 9:47 am #

      I noticed this in Germany too. Germans are way more willing to drive a variety of speeds for different conditions. They go 100mph on the autobahn and slow down to 10mph in villages; the U.S. is full of people who simply want to drive 50 mph all the time. Even our speed limits reflect it to a point; you can be on a highway in the middle of nowhere being forced to drive 55mph but on many city streets 35 mph is fair game.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell March 25, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

        Yep. They make a very clear distinction between a motorway that’s intended for motors, and all other roads that are intended for lots of different modes to share.

        • Jeff Klein March 25, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

          It’s actually kinda what Charles Marohn from Strong Towns says: if you’re going 40-50 mph, you’re not going fast enough to get anywhere but you’re going slow enough for the street to be a decent place to be. And yet that’s what we do: go 40-50 mph 90% of the time.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell March 25, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

      That level of ignorance by Hanks is, seemingly, amazing. Until you realize how many others think like that. I’ll be glad when we get that kind of thinking changed.

  2. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini March 25, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Timely. Great work by Eric Roper at the Strib in detailing locations of auto-pedestrian incidents with detail on contributing factors from motorist and pedestrian perspectives. http://www.startribune.com/local/blogs/252229291.html

  3. Ron March 25, 2014 at 10:25 am #

    Great post.

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke March 25, 2014 at 10:37 am #

    yeah but we have such fancy car seats

  5. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke March 25, 2014 at 11:52 am #

    PS this makes me think of the classic scene in the 1928 film The Crowd where the main character’s young daughter gets run over while crossing the street in their gritty new york neighborhood:

    http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2009/09/classic-sidewalks-of-silver-screen-26.html

    Needless to say, it ruins the family’s life.

  6. hokan March 25, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Some of use like to go on about how our streets aren’t safe for cyclists. Statistically, they’re not too bad. Pedestrians, on the other hand, are much worse off, suffering more crashes with cars and with death a much more likely outcome of those crashes.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell March 26, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

      Yep, I think you’re right. Walking does feel safer though. Not sure why that is.

  7. Dave P March 25, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

    Excellent article, Walker, which resonates with me. I grew up in a small fringe metro community on Highway 8 (aka the highway of death), and we had a series of tragic deaths in a 2-3 year period due to poor road design in our community. Two of those intersections we re-designed and re-built shortly thereafter, but it was too late to save myself and my peers from the impact of those tragedies.

    I’d like to know how often these deaths are due to poor road design outside of the “inner ring”. For example, my street in South Minneapolis has kids play right in the street, including skate boarders who frequently hang out and hone their craft (which I love). I’d imagine many side streets in the city and first ring burbs have the same traffic levels, and therefore allow this. However, we do have the occasional entitled ass hat who speeds down our street (one end is a T-intersection), and could easily kill.

    That said, I wonder if many of these deaths are due to poorly designed rural intersections and suburban communities. For example, my sister lives in suburban St. Paul, and she cannot even let her children out in the front yard due to the high speeds at which cars drive through her neighborhood or the rural examples that impacted me so much as a teenager. It’s a sad situation, and one we should demand better of ourselves as drivers.

    • mister.shoes March 25, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

      “However, we do have the occasional entitled ass hat who speeds down our street (one end is a T-intersection), and could easily kill.”

      It’s like you live on the same street as me in MPLS! I’m half a block from a T, and yet we still get people flying down our street when there are through streets one block to either side. I petitioned the city a few years back to switch the Stop sign half a block the other direction because for some reason it didn’t follow the every-other-block rhythm. No dice. mrs.shoes is due with the first baby.shoes in four months. We’d like our street to stay safe for him/her for many years.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke March 25, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

        I think everyone lives on that street.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell March 26, 2014 at 11:19 am #

        Is some of this a need for culture change? Too many people think it’s OK to speed through these neighborhoods? There is no social pressure to act responsibly?

        • Eric Saathoff
          Eric S March 26, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

          I’m not sure how much help social pressure will bring unless it is organized to advocate for speed bumps or the like. The people going fast aren’t necessarily people we know and I don’t think they’re slowing down for dirty looks.

  8. Adam Old March 25, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    Great article! I think it is very important to point out that Europe and Asia’s cities made a choice to prioritize people over cars, and they could have easily gone the same way that most American cities did.

    I would love to see these statistics related to Pedestrian or Bicycle fatalities per Ped/BikeMileTraveled. American streets are so devoid of pedestrians that their true danger isn’t really apparent in measurements of overall traffic fatalities, especially with seatbelts/airbags/crumple zones protecting the people inside the cars.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell March 26, 2014 at 11:16 am #

      You and me both. I’ve tried to drill down to some of those risk exposure statistics (per hour exposure is critical as well) and have not had much success.

  9. Eric Saathoff
    Eric S March 25, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

    Is a Netherlands-like movement even conceivable? Is the evidence too light to convince the average mother? Deaths are decreasing, after all.

    It would be great to see a coalition in MPLS / StP around this issue between mothers groups and pedestrian/bicycle advocates. It seems like the mothers have bought too deeply into the notion that streets are not for people (especially kids).

    We have “women on bikes” groups that are supposedly also advocating on behalf of families.

    This particular focus on child safety would find much less resistance than advocating for the safety of bicycle commuters, I think, if we could agitate the right people. I’m not sure the evidence is enough.

    On Maryland Ave in St. Paul they are building new turn lanes in the name of improved safety. It looks like they are taking out an old bar and a whole line of houses along Maryland between Edgerton and Payne. I have to wonder what people would say they want – faster/increased traffic or reduced, calm traffic. Maryland is not generally a commercial corridor, it is lined with houses. Unfortunately, it was at one of the houses on this block that a man was just reportedly shooting at police. Pedestrian safety may be the least of their concerns.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 25, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

      Maryland is in dire need of a 4-3 conversion.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell March 26, 2014 at 11:13 am #

      Eric, great points. Sadly, I think you’re right about mothers, or parents in general, thinking that neighborhood streets are no longer places for anything but driving. When you look at the typical 30′ wide residential street with cars going 40mph it’s no wonder. And in my neighborhood it’s a significant number of mothers of young children driving so fast.

      I do think this can and will change. Complete Streets movements will help. There is also the Free Range Kids movement (http://www.freerangekids.com). More and more parents are seeming to want to get back to kids being able to safely play outside and ride their bikes to school, friends, and activities. It’ll be a slow change though.

    • Dana DeMaster
      DanaD March 31, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

      Ugh. Mothers. We’re a monolithic group with a single take on everything driven by the presence of small people in our lives. Sigh.

      When I talk to my mother friends about biking, walking, taking the bus – not driving generally – I don’t get the sense that their number one problem is having bought to deeply into the notion that streets are not for people. What I hear, and what I have come up with creative ways to deal with in my own life, are much more mundane and practical things. It’s hard to get a weeks worth of groceries and two kids without a car or an expensive cargo bike. It’s hard to get to the grocery store daily (tried shopping with kids?) to purchase the amount that will fit into a pannier or single bag. When you have to make three or four stops on the way home from work, biking and bussing can be a total pain. A fat bike is great in the winter, but you can’t pull a trailer through five inches of snow. Time is a critical factor. When you have to get home from work, school, and day care; make dinner; get to swimming lessons; and get home before a 7:30 bed time biking is just not doable (mostly). We spend a lot of time walking and bussing this winter and it wasn’t the most fun in the world. There were plenty of times while waiting at a bus stop in negative 20 weather with a complaining five-year old and a two-year old strapped to my back that a second car looked pretty damn good.

      Safety is a factor and an important one, but it comes after a long list of much more mundane things. Bump outs and bike lanes and cars that actually stopped at crosswalks and better timed lights for people with short legs or strollers and separated bike lanes would all be amazing, but ultimately they don’t get me from three different stores and home in time for naptime. That’s why most moms I’ve spoken to drive. They would love to bike and walk with their children and get their kids biking and take the bus more.

      The super hard thing about advocacy and being a mom is time. Meetings are often on short notice and never provide child care (besides my children would never be cool with being dropped off with strangers). I already work full-time and have about three hours with my children a night – I’m loathe to give that time up to attend meeting that isn’t critical. How about meeting on Saturday afternoon at a place that’s kid-friendly and not giving the evil eye when I do bring my kids armed with coloring books and crayons? With an hour between their bedtime and my bedtime there is only so much time to write letters to my electeds, keep up on bike plans, arrange rides, etc. when I also have to clean the house, pack lunches, take a shower, and visit with my spouse. It’s not that we’re not interested in advocacy, but it takes a lot of creative problem-solving and mental energy to be involved particularly when I get the message all too clearly that we’re not welcome.

      I’d also like to point out that I have the luxury of choice. We could afford a second car. There are tons of kids and moms and dads at bus stops and on Magnas who don’t.

      I’m trying to find a positive spin to the end of this because I’m not trying to be completely negative. I just so rarely hear my voice reflected in these types of spaces, but I hear a lot of people co-opting my voice and using the paradigm of motherhood for various ends. I’ve thought that maybe my contribution to the advocacy scene could be to provide free child care at public meetings so moms could be more likely to attend, whether they show up in a minivan or on a bak fiets.

      • Eric Saathoff
        Eric S March 31, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

        I agree. I am a father of three, and it is a strain on all of us when I choose to go to an evening meeting. That is to say, when I request that my wife take on more of the work at home.

        For some reason when I think of what happened in the Netherlands I always see pictures of mothers holding up signs at protests. Also, there is an organization called St. Paul Women on Bikes, which is focused on “women and families,” perhaps unlike some other cycling organizations that are focused more on commuters.

        When I think about this issue of street safety generally, I’m not really thinking about families in transit – I’m thinking about my kids at home, playing in the front yard. Do they get to play on the sidewalk or is that just too dangerously close to the street? When my 4 year old gets off of training wheels, when would I dare let him ride in the street with me (or even alone)? I’m thinking about children’s play more than a bike-commuting family.

        I suppose the fact that there are such mundane concerns for the average mother is sort of the point. If this issue were to penetrate into the day as a concern, if it were to arouse anger from enough normal, busy people it would become a point of real public discussion. Policies might change.

        As it is, we go on, resigned to the status quo, perhaps not even asking ourselves how it could be any better. This was my father-in-law’s attitude when I recently asked him if he would like his street to be calmed somewhat (Xerxes Ave in Fulton).
        What if we all had truly walkable grocery stores? What if it was a pleasure to walk to them, even during winter?

        • Adam Old March 31, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

          The adoption of single-use zoning, and the subtle ways that subsidies have been given to large retailers and auto-oriented development has made it hugely difficult to live without a car. We should all be yelling for mixed-use zoning laws in our cities. We need to accept the small inconvenience of living near where we buy things—some noise, more people, etc.

  10. Bob T March 30, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    Great article outlining where transportation in The US can be improved to save lives. A contributing factor to lower death rates in many European countries is the price of fuels. When drivers pay $8.00 per gallon, or more, for fuel the choice to bike, walk or use public transportation becomes easier. Taxes from fuel are used to improve and maintain infrastructure for all modalities. Change takes time but it can happen in the US.

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