What Can Europe Teach The U.S. About Reducing Traffic Fatalities?

January 24, 2013

When it comes to traffic fatalities, there's good news and bad news:

Good news: the U.S. fatality rate has reached an all-time low.

Bad news: according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that rate isn't going to stay low for long. Though NHTSA won't officially announce figures for 2012 until November or December, preliminary reports indicate a 9% jump in fatalities during the first six months of last year.  

That's a disturbing possibility, but folks at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute suggest that by following the lead of certain European countries, we may be able to reverse course and maintain -- even improve -- America's record-low fatality rates.

UMTRI's Michael Sivak says that "Despite recent major improvements in road safety in the U.S., the current safety level is far below the level of the best-performing countries". To prove it, he and his colleague, Juha Luoma, compared U.S. traffic fatality stats with those from the Netherlands, Sweden, and the U.K.

America didn't exactly shine by comparison. The U.S. fatality rate is 124 deaths per million people, but in the Netherlands, that figure is 40 deaths per million. In Sweden it's 42, and in the U.K., it's 43.

Sivak and Luoma credit those low fatality rates to a range of policies and laws found in Europe, many of which could be applied in the U.S. Among the pair's suggestions are:

  • Tougher laws on drunk driving, including lower legal blood alcohol limits and greater use of alcohol ignition interlocks for those convicted of driving while intoxicated.
  • Lowering speed limits in urban areas, mandating speed-limiters for big rigs and other heavy vehicles, and more deployment of speed cameras.
  • Making front and rear seatbelts mandatory, and making seatbelt noncompliance a primary offense (meaning that officers can pull over drivers if they spot someone without a seatbelt, rather than needing to cite them for another offense first).
  • Improving and shortening commutes through better urban planning, more efficient and attractive public transportation, and encouraging businesses to allow their workers to telecommute.

Doing all that will not be easy. Unlike in Europe, many of the kinds of traffic laws that Sivak and Luoma endorse are set by individual states, not the federal government. Some are already on the books in the U.S., but they vary from state to state, meaning that there's significant variation across the country. Getting them to line up won't be easy.

Also, there are topographic differences to consider. On average, U.S. motorists drive twice as far during the year as their counterparts in the Netherlands, Sweden, and the U.K. As Luoma points out, "The U.S. is a much larger country than any of the others. Furthermore, land use and urban planning differ substantially between the U.S. and Europe. Most U.S. cities were designed in such a way that transportation depends heavily on personal vehicles." Naturally, the more folks travel, the more likely they are to be involved in an accident.

Share your thoughts on UMTRI's suggestions -- or even suggestions of your own -- in the comments below.

[via John Voelcker]

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