U.S. traffic fatalities rise while international numbers improve

By Robbie Webber

A new report by the International Transport Forum highlights how the United States is losing the battle to reduce traffic fatalities, while other countries improve their safety records. Out of 41 countries contributing to the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, most reported a reduction in traffic fatalities between 2010 and 2016. The U.S. was in the small group that had an increase, with only Colombia and Jamaica reporting higher percent increases during that time period.

Many countries saw fatalities drop during the economic downturn, with the lowest fatality numbers in 2014 and increasing since then. But most countries still have fatality numbers below the 2010 point. The report states that, “Traffic fatalities in 2016 were down 3.6% compared to 2010. If the United States are excluded, the reduction was nearly 15%.”

The U.S. also distinguishes itself by having a very high fatality rate per 100,000 inhabitants (11.6) compared to most countries being below 10 and a group of 13 countries being below five. All the countries with a higher fatality rate than the U.S. are in Latin America.

The report goes on to outline other ways of measuring road safety, and the U.S. generally doesn’t fare well overall. The U.S. is the only country in the report that saw a rise fatalities for all categories of road users: motor vehicle, motorcyclists, pedestrian, and bicyclists. Even compared to Canada—another large country, with vast distances to cover, a similar economy, education levels, and car-ownership levels—we have a terrible safety record. Why?

An interview with Neil Arason, Director of Injury Prevention and Healthy Settings at the British Columbia Ministry of Health, begins to answer that question. Even given the higher levels of transit use and less driving overall, Canada’s 5.2 fatalities per 100,000 population is less than half that of the U.S.  Aranson attributes part of the difference to stricter laws. Distracted driving, seat belts, speeding, and drunk driving laws are all more strictly enforced. Many traffic laws are also primary enforcement in Canada, meaning police can ticket on these offenses without needing other reasons to stop a driver.

Aranson also thinks culture plays a part, especially when it comes to speeding. “The U.S. is a bit obsessed with freedom. There’s two kinds of freedom: “freedom to” and “freedom from.” There’s freedom to drive fast. And there’s freedom from death and injury on the roads.”

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.