Why So Many Americans Die in Traffic Accidents
Our car culture is killing us.
YahooNews Senior White House Correspondent Alexander Nazaryan asks, “Why do so many Americans keep dying in traffic accidents?”
The United States has the most traffic deaths per capita of any developed country.
In 2020, the coronavirus reduced road deaths worldwide because people were forced to stay home. But the U.S. bucked that trend and saw rising traffic deaths, which spiked to a 16-year high in 2021 before a modest decrease in 2022.
“We face a crisis here in America,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told Yahoo News last month, pointing out that the number of people who died on the roads each year (42,795 in 2022) is comparable to the number killed by guns (48,830 in 2021).
“It should not be this way,” she added.
So, first, deaths per capita isn’t a useful measure here. As the report will note, we drive far more miles than people in other developed countries. And, second, aside from wishfulness, what possible expertise does the White House press secretary bring to this conversation?
Americans drive more, which leads to more crashes, on roads that facilitate unsafe driving.
On average, Americans drive more than twice as many miles as the French, more than three times as many as the Japanese and far more than even the residents of neighboring Canada — and have many more road deaths per capita in comparison to Germany and the U.K.
I grant that driving less would likely lower the risk of road deaths. But we’re a huge, sprawled country.
Other countries have prioritized road safety through measures like lower speed limits and protected bike lanes. And they tend to have much better commuter and long-distance train networks.
I’m not sure what “other countries” have lower speed limits. The EU, though, doesn’t.
The general speed limit for motorways in EU Member States is mostly 120 or 130 km/h. Germany does not have a general speed limit for motorways, but a recommended speed of 130 km/h. The general speed limit for rural roads in EU Member States is mostly 80 or 90 km/h and for urban roads 50 km/h.
In most countries speed limits that differ from these general limits are applied. Widespread and well known are the 30 km/h zones in residential areas. In Germany, where there is no general speed limit for motorways, many sections of the motorway have a local posted speed limit which may range from 80 km/h to 130 km/h, related to both safety and environmental considerations. Also in the Netherlands, an increasing number of motorway sections have a permanent lower speed limit (notably 100 or 80 km/h) aiming to reduce air pollution and noise where there are adjacent residential areas.
The 130kph highway limit that’s the EU norm translates to 81mph—faster than any posted limit I’ve ever seen in the United States. We had a 55mph limit in place from 1971 to 1987, allowed states to raise it to 65 in rural areas between 1987 and 1995, and abandoned any Federal limit after that. Still, I can’t recall the last time I saw a posted limit above 70.
President Biden is a “train guy” himself, and has vowed to improve Amtrak’s performance. But his signature legislative achievements, the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, spend hundreds of billions of dollars on repairing roads and making electric vehicles more accessible. Although the Department of Transportation (DOT) is beginning to work on making roads safer, the funding seems to tacitly acknowledge that the car reigns supreme.
Biden represented tiny Delaware in the Senate for decades. Wilmington to DC is ripe for commuting by train, taking 90 minutes at most—far faster and more convenient than driving. There are all manner of similar possibilities in the northeastern United States and I support, at least in principle, modernizing and bolstering the train infrastructure. But, unless we’re going to force everyone to move to center cities, it’s just not practical for most of us to conduct our lives other than by automobile.
Cars are also getting bigger and heavier, thus doing more damage to anything, or anyone, they hit.
“I’m concerned about the increased risk of severe injury and death for all road users from heavier curb weights and increasing size, power and performance of vehicles on our roads, including electric vehicles,” Jennifer Homendy, who heads the National Transportation Safety Board, said earlier this year.
This is, indeed, a uniquely American phenomenon. As long as I can remember, and probably longer, we have driven much larger vehicles than our European and Japanese counterparts. Presumably, that’s largely a function of so much of our development taking place in the aftermath of the automobile rather than having to figure out how to incorporate the automobile into centuries-old roads and cityscapes.
I have the need to transport seven people with enough frequency that a larger vehicle is necessary. I traded in the Toyota minivan for a Mazda CX-9, a three-row SUV, a few years back. It’s still much smaller than the Chevy Suburbans and Ford F-250s that are so ubiquitous.
Of course, if you do get into a crash, a larger car is more survivable. And, if large cars are the norm, being in a small car is positively unsafe. But a car-on-pedestrian or car-on-bicycle collision is more likely to kill the pedestrian or bicyclist as cars increase in size and weight.
Drivers also face distraction from smartphones and built-in digital consoles. A new BMW has a video game console — for the driver.
I’m skeptical that Europeans and Asians aren’t similarly distracted. And distracted driving is illegal, so far as I know, everyone in the United States by this point.
Changes in policing may also be responsible for the seeming prevalence of bad driving, which all too frequently goes unpunished.
Several high-profile cases in which police officers killed Black men — Walter Scott in Charleston, S.C., Philando Castile in Minneapolis — began as traffic stops that quickly escalated into needlessly fatal confrontations. During the racial justice protests of 2020, many reformers called on police departments to refrain from stopping motorists for minor infractions.
Police departments had their own motivations to make fewer stops, not wanting to attract scrutiny from a public that, some law enforcement officials said, did not fully grasp the risks of their profession. In apparent protest of intense new scrutiny — and perhaps in retaliation for vocal anti-police sentiment — officers across the country became less attentive about fulfilling their duties.
While some celebrated this pullback, others worry that a less proactive approach to road safety by police departments has endangered Americans.
“Why do many of us drive dangerously on the roads? Because we think we can get away with it. And guess what — we probably can right now in many places in the country. There’s not enforcement out there, they’re hesitant to write tickets. And we’re seeing the results of that,” Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association told NPR earlier this year.
This explanation only makes sense if the divergence in traffic fatalities took place in 2020. Otherwise, it just seems like filler.