Gradually, over the past 40 years, American roads have become some of the most dangerous in the industrialized world. It wasn’t always so. At one time, driving in the U.S. was much safer. The number of traffic-related deaths in 1990 was about 10 percent lower than those in Canada and Australia, two other similarly industrialized countries with a comparable number of highway miles which have now passed us safety-wise. And other countries have established aggressive campaigns to reduce vehicle crashes while we here in the U.S. have not. Even though traffic fatalities have fallen here, the lion’s share of the credit goes to safer vehicles. And our drop in fatalities has been much shallower than that of any other industrialized nation.
As a result, this country has turned into a disturbing outlier according to the International Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The U.S. vehicle fatality rate is about 40 percent higher than Canada’s or Australia’s. The comparison with tiny Slovenia is pitiful. In 1990, its death rate was more than five times as high as ours. Today, on a pro-rated basis, Slovenia has safer roads.
A curious conclusion when looking at the numbers reveals that had the U.S. kept pace with the rest of the world in reducing traffic fatalities, about 10,000 fewer Americans each year – or about 30 each day – would still be alive. And those 30 fatalities per day make our roads more dangerous when compared to the number of deaths from another tragic American plague – gun violence.
Reasons Why American Drivers Lag When it Comes to Road Safety
“The overwhelming factor is speed,” says Leonard Evans, an automotive researcher when asked why we Americans seem determined to kill ourselves on the road. “Small differences in speed cause large differences in harm,” he adds, noting that other countries post lower speed limits and have more cameras devoted to catching speeders. But speed is only one explanation — there’s more.
Seatbelt use is also more prevalent elsewhere. Even though we have aggressive campaigns to get Americans to “buckle up,” one out of every seven American drivers (and passengers) still doesn’t use one according to safety researchers. Other reasons for heightened driver safety in other countries is that in some, 16-year-olds aren’t allowed to drive, and buzzed driving viewed as drunk driving and is punished that way. In the U.S., only the heavily Mormon Utah prosecutes buzzed drivers like a DWI.
The Problem is the Choices We Make
The political problem with all of these steps, of course, is that they restrict freedom, and we Americans like our freedom.
Though many people remain skeptical of driverless cars, especially when they’re being tested on our streets, side by side with us, the thought of trusting our lives to a computer as we hurtle down a freeway makes a lot of us a bit squeamish. But NOT doing something while we await this technology that takes all our “freedom of choice” out of driving is even crazier.
How many more will be killed as we wait for the arrival of futuristic self-driving machines? Other countries have objectively analyzed the main causes of their crashes and then taken steps to eliminate them one by one. Can’t we try it one more time before the self-driving “cavalry” arrives to save us? That could mean a lot of extra lives to enjoy a safer future.