January 24, 2018
Reducing Traffic Deaths

Reducing Traffic Deaths

by John Swartzberg, M.D.

Many people are scared about flying. Most know it isn’t rational, since entire years pass with no deaths from crashes of U.S. commercial airlines. The hours you spend on a plane may well be the safest time in your life. That’s because the government and airline industry have just about perfected air safety.

What people should worry about is driving or riding in a car, which is the riskiest thing most of us do on a regular basis. Every year about 32,000 Americans are killed in motor vehicles, most in the prime of their lives. That’s about 90 deaths a day—plus 3,000 serious injuries every day.

It is true that our cars (despite recent recalls) and roads (despite reduced funding for infrastructure maintenance) are safer than they used to be, and that death rates have declined dramatically over the years. But we could be doing much better in preventing deaths on U.S. roads.

This was made clear in an August 2014 analysis in the American Journal of Public Health by the traffic safety expert Leonard Evans, Ph.D., which shows that the U.S. has fallen far behind other industrialized countries in reducing traffic fatalities. Until the 1980s we had the lowest automotive death rates (in terms of deaths per million vehicles or per distance traveled) of 26 industrialized countries, but have now dropped near the bottom of the rankings. Fatalities have declined further and faster in all the other countries, making the U.S. a “unique outlier.” In the Netherlands, for example, traffic fatalities have been cut by 81 percent since 1971, compared to 41 percent here.

“The failure of the U.S. in traffic safety is of near incomprehensible magnitude. . . . If the U.S. could only match the far-from-perfect safety performance of a number of other countries, 20,000 fewer Americans would be killed annually and almost a million injuries prevented,” Dr. Evans concludes. Even if this analysis overestimates the potential reductions in traffic deaths by half, they would still be huge.

The key to cutting traffic deaths, says Dr. Evans, is to focus more on driver behavior, which is the sole or partial cause of nearly 95 percent of crashes. That means reducing drunk, distracted, or sleep-deprived driving and, most important, preventing speeding. In addition, sensible traffic laws should be enforced on the basis of proven methods— for instance, by speed-detecting radar and other technology used much more widely in some other countries.

In contrast, the government, auto industry, and media focus largely on the dangers posed by design or manufacture problems of certain car models, which account for only a tiny number of fatalities—and over which drivers have no control. Dr. Evans blames this disproportionate attention to “vehicle factors” on the powerful role of litigation in the U.S.

Americans have a love/hate relationship with cars and with traffic laws (well, we usually like the laws when they are enforced for other drivers). We tend to think of driving as a private matter, but it is a public activity. We led the way in improving air safety and in reducing smoking-related deaths. We should, once again, lead the way with highway safety.