Chart of the Day: Deaths per Billion Miles Travelled, US vs Others

Here’s a chart from a recent New York Times op-ed column comparing the United states to a few other countries. Long story short, we have not made much progress in the last 20 years about improving our road safety.

Here’s the chart:

Bonus chart!

The Times piece lists a few reasons for this relative lack of progress, including the lack of speed cameras, the lack of “evidence-based campaigns,” low seatbelt use, higher drunk driving rates, and higher rates of teenage driving.

Here’s the punchline from the author, David Leonhardt:

The political problem with all of these steps, of course, is that they restrict freedom, and we Americans like freedom. To me, the freedom to have a third beer before getting behind the wheel — or to drive 15 miles an hour above the limit — is not worth 30 lives a day. But I recognize that not everyone sees it this way.

Which is part of the reason I’m so excited about driverless technology. It will let us overcome self-destructive behavior, without having to change a lot of laws. A few years from now, sophisticated crash-avoidance systems will probably be the norm. Cars will use computers and cameras to avoid other objects. And the United States will stand to benefit much more than the rest of the industrialized world.

Until then, be careful out there.

Hopefully these changes can happen, even before robot cars “save us”.

10 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Deaths per Billion Miles Travelled, US vs Others

  1. Mike Hicks

    I’m reluctant to put a whole lot of faith in the UK’s speeding figures. I believe their freeways (motorways) are set at 80 mph, though I don’t know what their lower-tier highways are like. The US also has a lot more freeway mileage per capita, which could skew things. The UK certainly makes heavy use of speed cameras, however.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Motorways are 70 MPH. However, not all are enforced. Outside of built-up areas 80-90 is the norm and 100 not unusual. As you approach a built-up area you’ll see a sign “speed limit enforced” which indicates where enforcement begins. There is no sign on the other side that it ends but it is generally understood by all.

      ‘A’ roads, which are two-lane, one in each direction, are 60 MPH. These are typically about 18′ wide and that 18′ is often between berms, rocks, and trees. People will often drive 55-60 but will be paying extremely close attention.

      It is somewhat rare, in the UK, NL, or other countries, to be on a road where it feels safe to drive over the speed limit. If you do you are risking your own life, or at least significant damage to your car.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Feels safe for visitors to drive over the speed limit. I definitely observed some Irish locals who felt safe above the speed limit (meanwhile I rarely felt safe even approaching it).

  2. Tom Holub

    Leonardt misses a critical point, which is that a much larger percentage of European roads are built for low speeds, while in America, we build roads for high speed and then put ineffective speed limit signs on them. Enforcement is only weakly effective at holding people to posted limits on roads which are engineered for higher speeds. Scaling down the roads can reduce speeds without placing obvious limits on “freedom.”

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I agree with you Tom that design > enforcement, but lots of people think that a road diet (e.g. Maryland Avenue) is a huge limit to freedom, for example.

    2. Daniel Hartigkingledion

      I think a point that you are missing is that road fatalities in the US do not happen in cities. Minnesota’s DPS has ‘crash facts’ to get some perspective from. In 2015 there were 411 traffic fatalities. Only 23 (5.6%) occurred in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have 12.9% of the population. Furthermore, fully 271 of the fatalities (65.9%) took place is townships of less then 1000 people; in the middle of nowhere.

      While engineering can significantly reduce the death rate in crowded cities, there isn’t enough money to engineer solutions on every county road in Minnesota. And, since that is where the majority of the deaths take place, engineering can make only a marginal difference in fatalities.

      The problem is, people in rural areas have organized their lives around the requirement to drive long distances, frequently. Whenever that requirement meets tiredness or alcohol, crashes are likely. How do Australia and Canada avoid this problem? That is the question I would like answered; but it surely isn’t with expensive modifications to long roads across the barren outback/prairie.

      1. Tom Holub

        I would say that the difference between the European small town, and the American small town, is even greater than the difference between the European city and the American city. Just take a random town: Plato, population 316. The road bordering the town, 212, is a high-speed, four-lane road, not a true freeway but with access ramps instead of traffic controls, and almost certainly massively over-engineered for the traffic level.

        The main road into town, McLeaod, is two lanes with wide shoulders, again, massively over-engineered for the 316 people who live there. Main Street and the streets around it appear to have 15-foot lanes and angle-in parking.

        This is all dangerous stuff, and unnecessarily so. And it is similar to small towns all across the midwest and the U.S.

        Compare that to, say, Bizonnes, France, a village I rode through on a tour earlier this year, population 629. The main highway through town is about half the size of Plato’s Main Street, a quarter of the size of 212. The rest of the streets are all essentially one-lane roads, curving between the buildings. Traffic speeds are low, driver attention is high, and I am sure it is far safer for all road users than Plato.

        Yes, retrofitting all of those towns is expensive and impractical. But the first step is admitting you have a problem.

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        “That is the question I would like answered; but it surely isn’t with expensive modifications to long roads across the barren outback/prairie.”

        Doesn’t it kind of have to be?

        I mean, I suppose they could have done it with driver training, qualification and licensing but it certainly isn’t enforcement on those same low-volume roads, you wouldn’t think.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I’m not sure the driverless technology that Leonhardt so looks forward to will be the panacea he thinks. That I’m aware of, nobody has yet developed a car that will do as well at handling people walking and riding bicycles as human drivers. Parity with human drivers, which simply equals our current level of pedestrian and bicycle fatalities and injuries, is still some years off and safer than human drivers likely some years beyond that. A breakthrough could certainly happen but we’ve seen no indication of such yet.

    BTW, here is sort of what Leonhardt’s chart looks like over time:

    This is only for children but is likely similar for all ages.

Comments are closed.