International perspective: Road safety, design, and alcohol consumption

By Brian Lutenegger

A pair of international studies from Australia and the European Union examined roadway safety. A number of factors help explain why Australia’s traffic fatality rate is less than half of the U.S. rate. And strict blood alcohol content limits can reduce fatalities but must be coupled with supportive policies that reduce alcohol consumption overall.

University of Colorado-Denver civil engineering professor Wesley Marshall compared roadway death rates between Australia and the United States. Australia generally had a higher road fatality rate than the U.S. until about 1980—and both countries’ rates have declined precipitously since then. On average, 5.3 people per 100,000 population die on the roads annually in Australia compared to 12.4 people in the U.S. His paper examined the reasons for this disparity:

  • Higher rates of seat belt usage in Australia: Australia required mandatory seat belt usage by 1973 nationwide; the U.S. (with the exception of New Hampshire) did not mandate seat belt use until 1995. While compliance with these laws is estimated at below 90 percent in the U.S., it is at least 95 percent or higher in Australia. Australian police can pull someone over for not wearing a seatbelt; this remains a secondary infraction in 15 U.S. states—meaning a driver must commit another more serious offense before a ticket can be issued for not wearing a seatbelt.
  • Built environment: Higher levels of urbanization—more than 60 percent of Australians live near one of its eight capital cities—is associated with safer roads. Rural Americans are overrepresented in traffic fatalities.
  • Intersection design: Australia makes greater use of roundabouts—one out of every 65 intersections (versus 1 out of 1118 in the U.S.). While sideswiping and rear-end collisions may be more common at roundabouts, these are less likely to be fatal. Australian drivers are also more likely to stop for pedestrians at marked crosswalks.
  • Roadway design: Australian streets, particularly local and collector streets, tend to be slightly narrower than their U.S. counterparts. This may be due to how roadways are designed in each country. In the U.S., conventional engineering tends to design roadways for as high a speed as practical (citing safety) with limited official guidance. Conversely, Australians tend to look to design to self-enforce a speed limit—or suggest designing for only slightly higher than the posted speed limit.
  • Travel behavior: U.S. drivers tend to travel more miles than their Australian counterparts (13,500 versus 10,000 miles annually) and driving costs more ($8558 versus more than $11,000 annually)—leading to more multimodal transportation users.
  • Licensure and enforcement: While most U.S. and Australian states have a graduated licensing program, the Australian process generally has additional restrictive stages. An Australian driver may be in their early 20s before they have a fully unrestricted license. Australia also makes greater use of traffic cameras and has steeper fines for violations.
  • Impaired driving: The legal blood alcohol content limit in the U.S. is 0.08 percent (0.04 percent for commercial drivers), while in Australia it is 0.05 percent (0.02 percent commercial). Australia experiences fewer alcohol-related road fatalities despite a standard that would classify more alcohol-related crashes. Alcohol is more expensive in Australia and random Breathalyzer tests more common.

A Spanish study examined the issue of alcohol consumption on traffic fatalities in the European Union. Most EU nations have a lower BAC limit than the U.S., with a similar limit to Australia being most common, and some even have zero tolerance. However, the countries with the strictest limit—primarily formerly Communist states in Eastern Europe—do not have better traffic safety outcomes. The authors cite higher alcohol consumption, relatively lower alcohol prices (due to lower tax rates) and lack of enforcement in those countries as factors. For example, the Czech Republic has had a zero BAC limit since 1953, but systematic breath testing only since 2010. However, this study found statistically that strict BAC rates are generally effective for reducing fatalities but require support policies limiting alcohol consumption. The study found a 10 percent increase in permitted BAC rates leads to a 7 percent increase in traffic fatalities—and a 10 percent increase in alcohol consumption leads to a 5 percent increase in the traffic fatality rate. Further, a 10 percent increase in the price of alcohol leads to a 7 percent reduction in traffic fatalities.

For U.S. planners and policymakers, these studies offer clear recommendations. Pursuit of Complete Streets and multimodal transportation options that make roads safer for users of all abilities are worthy goals. The studies also point to roadway designs that narrow streets and slow traffic to reduce the number and severity of crashes. More extensive driver education and training could encourage safer driving. Finally, both studies point to stricter BAC limits for drivers in order to reduce traffic fatalities, but policymakers must do more than just set limits in order to reduce traffic fatalities.

Brian Lutenegger is a Program Associate at Smart Growth America.