U.S. car deaths far higher than other developed nations: How do we cut the fatality rate?

July 8, 2016

Earlier this week, we received some alarming news: preliminary data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests that the number of U.S. traffic fatalities rose by nearly 8 percent in 2015. All told, NHTSA believes that some 35,200 drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians lost their lives last year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that currently available technology could cut that number in half, if not more. 

It's not that the U.S. has been complacent on the safety front. Between 2000 and 2013, traffic fatalities fell 31 percent in America. Unfortunately, our peers in other developed nations saw rates plummet far further--56 percent, on average. 

What's our problem? The CDC compared U.S. stats to those in 18 other countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom. Here are our weak spots:

Speeding: Excessive speed is a contributing factor in roughly 9,500 deaths per year.

Booze: Drunk driving is a factor in over 10,000 fatal accidents year year, or roughly 31 percent of the total. The only country with a higher alcohol-related fatality rate is Canada, where it's 34 percent. 

Safety belts: Though 87 percent of U.S. drivers and front-seat passengers wear seat belts, that's a much lower percentage than most other countries the CDC studied. Lack of proper restraints, including child seats, is a factor in some 9,500 deaths per year.

The second-worst overall performer on the CDC's list was Belgium, which had a fatality rate about two-thirds of ours. Sweden, the safest country studied, had a rate one-third of ours. If we matched that, we'd see roughly 24,000 fewer deaths per year.

The good news, of course, is that we already have the tools to bring down America's fatality rate. We only have to use them. The CDC's Erin Sauber-Schatz, Ph.D., M.P.H. puts it plainly:

"It’s unacceptable for 90 people to die on our roads each day, especially when we know what works to prevent crashes, injuries, and deaths. About 3,000 lives could be saved each year by increasing seat belt use to 100%, and up to 10,000 lives could be saved each year by eliminating alcohol-impaired driving."

The question is: does America have the appetite for such a bold goal?

[hat tip: Brian Henderson]

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