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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jen says:

    There’s a lot to unpack here, but a few unorganized points/thoughts:

    “But we’re a huge, sprawled country.” So is Canada.
    – Europeans have MUCH tougher driver licensing standards. When I lived in Germany, you had to be 18 to start the driver’s licensing process, and you had to drive around with a big L (learner) on your vehicle for a year afterwards
    – Americans need to get OFF THEIR FU*&%NG PHONES while driving. We’ve somehow convinced ourselves that hands-free is some kind of magical zone. It isn’t. What your hands are doing matters, but what your brain is doing matters more.
    I’m skeptical that Europeans and Asians aren’t similarly distracted. I can’t speak for Asians, but I have a number of friends in the UK and they treat talking on the phone while driving like drunk driving–you are considered completely irresponsible and, frankly, a bit of an idiot if you talk on the phone while driving. (Also, the police in the UK are pretty aggressive about enforcing the laws prohibiting this.) On the other hand, I saw plenty of people in Italy talking on the phone (and gesturing) while driving. I hated it, and spent much of our time on the roads with my eyes closed in Italy. The drivers there are terrifying IMHO.

    Purely observational, but Americans seem to be much worse drivers on balance. We drive bigger vehicles, which lends a feeling of safety, we drive automatics, which makes people think they can do a bunch of other sh!t while driving (shaving, reading the paper, makeup application, eating, cell phone use, etc. are all things I’ve actually witnessed). We have large stretches of straight roads, and easier licensing requirements.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    And, if large cars are the norm, being in a small car is positively unsafe.

    This is tangential to the post, but I want to take at least a little bit of issue with this. A large car such as a pickup truck or an SUV may be safer once you are in an accident, but you are also more likely to be in an accident with them in the first place. The linked study shows about a 10% increase in likelihood of accidents in a large car, and I suspect that as a practical matter it’s even worse, since the small car category includes sports cars, hot hatches and the like. (The SUV equivalent of those, the performance SUV, is probably too recent a phenomenon to have affected this 2020 report). Overall, a small car will likely handle better, avoid rollover better, and stop in a significantly shorter distance than an SUV. I had this demonstrated to me pretty dramatically as I entered a blind S curve on a mountain road in my Mini Cooper (going the speed limit, no faster) and discovered an SUV attempting a 3 point turn, blocking both lanes. I slammed on the brakes in the turn and stopped about 5 feet away from her (thank god for ABS!), staring right into her eyes the whole time. Later I looked up the stopping distance for her SUV and realized that if I had been driving it instead of Mini I would have T-Boned her at about 35 mph. She would have probably been dead and if we had gone over the steep slope on the side, who knows how long we would have rolled down the hill.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    One thing about speed limits in Europe, is that they are frequently rigid, if the sign says 100KPH and you’re going 105 you will be ticketed, most likely by use of radar attached to a camera. Here in Cow Hampshire, the highway speed limit is 70, but the colloquial acknowledged speed limit is 85, since few are stopped (speed cameras being verboten here) for being only 15 over.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Jen: It wasn’t addressed in the piece but, yes, it’s much easier to get a license here than in Germany, at least. I haven’t driven in Europe in the ubiquitous smartphone era. I drove in Italy on vacation circa 2006 and the only long-term European driving experience I have is when I was stationed in Germany 1988-1992.

    @MarkedMan: Yes, fair. Heavier vehicles are, almost by definition, less maneuverable and have greater stopping distances.

    @Sleeping Dog: Yes, it’s something of a chicken and egg problem. In many instances, our speed limits are absurdly low—presumably because there’s an expectation for a 10mph grace cushion.

  5. Daryl says:

    This chart shows 1.37 deaths per 100 Million Miles Travelled.
    This chart lists the US deaths per 1 Billion Km at 8.3…a healthy chunk more than our European and Scandinavian friends.
    These seem like small numbers…until you consider that Americans drive 3.2 Trillion miles every year.
    I would conjecture that most of the difference is explained by alcohol use followed closely by distracted driving. Through most of Europe the BAC limit is .5%…here it is .8%. And the penalties are far harsher. In the UK you might get 6 months in jail, a harsh fine, and a driving ban for at least 1 year. In France you could get a 4,500 euro fine, your drivers license confiscated immediately for three years, and a possibility of up to two years in jail.

  6. Mu Yixiao says:

    Highway deaths since 1975 have dropped by about 2/3, to 1.37 per 100M miles traveled, while the number of miles driven has more than doubled.

    Here’s the trend.

  7. drj says:


    I have a number of friends in the UK and they treat talking on the phone while driving like drunk driving

    Drunk driving is considered more socially acceptable in the US than in Europe, in my experience. Perhaps because there are fewer alternatives to simply getting into your car.

    American drivers also tend to be less disciplined than European drivers. Even Italian drivers at least know what is going on around them. That’s the only way to survive if you collectively turn a four-lane road into a six-lane one.

    By contrast, American drivers tend to pay less attention – which, to be fair, they can usually get away with because there is generally less traffic and roads are considerably wider. On the upside, they also tend to be less aggressive. But carelessness might even be more dangerous than aggressiveness…

    And then there are automatic transmissions and cruise control that allow you to pay even less attention, both of which you hardly see in European cars (because you have to drive more responsively with smaller engines and cruise control is only useful (if you are lucky) on quiet Sunday mornings). Plus bigger cars might give a misplaced sense of safety.

    In short, if I had to put money on it, I would guess that distracted driving (including DUIs) is the main issue here.

  8. Neil Hudelson says:


    – “But we’re a huge, sprawled country.” So is Canada.

    Well, there’s sprawl and then there’s sprawl. 128 million Americans live on coastal counties, but that population is fairly well distributed. That is, they are living in coastal counties in NY and FL and CA and WA, etc., The other roughly 200 million are also fairly well distributed across the continental US, Wyoming and the like notiwithstanding. You have cities with metro areas of 1.5 million+ pretty well distributed throughout the US.

    Versus Canada, where half of the population lives south of Michigan’s borders.

  9. Modulo Myself says:

    Google maps with its shortcuts has made things worse. People do not where they are going at all. Awareness is down. Last time I was in LA I was being led down residential streets in order to shave time off the trip. In NYC, I’m always seeing huge trucks led into tiny little streets where they get stuck or run over the curb and Uber drivers told to cut 3 minutes off the trip on roads with no lights and with bad turn visibility.

    Also, anecdotally drivers have become worse. Tailgating was something I was taught not to do. I don’t drive a lot but I am tailgated 24/7, night or day, by about every driver out there.

  10. JKB says:

    Seems like support for remote work and discouraging the reopening of downtowns and other centralized work areas would be beneficial. Most of the distracted driving many mentioned happens among commuters. And it has always been such. I notice how horrible many drivers on the road for the morning or afternoon commuting hours were compared to other hours back in the late ’70s.

    In any case, trains, buses and other mass transit don’t work for non-commuting travel. Well, maybe in Manhattan. But elsewhere the chances of home, work, kid’s school, kid’s activities being on a route are between thin and none. So the solution is remote work. Same goes for factories which aren’t downtown but out on freeway exits where land is cheap.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    I drove a six cylinder Toyota RAV 4 around Italy and a bit of France for seven months. I love Italian driving, but you need to understand that it is a much more communal business. Italians on the road work together, they co-operate, they all know the rules (such as they are) and they abide by them. And it works.

    France? No fun. No fun at all. Speed cameras everywhere and they aren’t fucking around. But I had two thrilling experiences driving in France. First, managed to squeeze that RAV through the streets of Carcassonne. Inside the walls Carcassonne. Pedestrians pressing flat against the walls. And of course I drove and survived the mad frenzy that is Place de L’Étoile.

    UK? Well, for an American that’s mostly about remembering no, no, no, not counterclockwise into a traffic circle! Unless you’re driving in Cornwall, which is mostly sunken, single lane width roads buried beneath overhanging hedges. Visibility twenty feet. Terrifying.

    But if we’re talking just quality of drivers, Americans are far and away the worst I’ve run into (heh.) Of course my points of comparison are all first world nations.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    Pedestrian deaths (hit by car) are way up and distracted drivers surely have a lot to do with it, but distracted pedestrians must also play a role. I walk everywhere when I’m home and more than once I’ve seen someone looking at their phone and step right into a road without even looking to see if anyone is coming. So far I haven’t witnessed any tragedies, but it seems inevitable

  13. Mister Bluster says:

    “But officer I’m sure the sign said 85!”
    “You’re in Texas City, Illinois ma’am. Not Texas.”

  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    An observations that I’ve had on Interstate driving in the US are that in general, speed over the posted limit is far higher on urban/suburban interstates than on rural interstates. In part, I believe the reason is the number of heavy trucks traveling on rural interstates, particularly through the mid-west. Today, most over-the-road trucks run on speed restrictions, either on the truck itself or via GPS monitoring to the trucks dispatcher. On most highways with a half dozen trucks occupying one lane going 70 nose to tail, it only takes one vehicle in the other lanes passing at 75, to slow up any cars that want to go faster.

  15. MarkedMan says:

    @Sleeping Dog:This brings up one of my (many) pet driving peeves: why, oh why don’t Americans realize the left lane is the passing lane? Once you are past your target you are supposed to move over. And if you are approaching someone with a 1 mph differential either speed up to pass or just go 1 mph slower. [Flame Off]

  16. Neil Hudelson says:


    While distracted pedestrians probably do play a role, in my experience their distraction is more of the “I am not in a position to see the distracted car-driver about to hit me” nature than a “I just walked into busy traffic because of my phone” nature.

    That is, the impetus is still on the person driving the tons of steel, plastic and rubber and dozens of miles per hour. Heck, even before the rise of smartphones I drove crowded city streets as if a pedestrian could’ve jumped out in front of me at any time, because sometimes they do.

    ETA: re: people just driving all the time in the left lane–when I lived in Texas it was common there to use your brights to signal to a person that they need to GTFO of your way. That’s not a thing in the Midwest, but I’ve started making it a thing.

  17. Andy says:

    The EPA tracks a lot of this data. See especially the following graphs: ES-2 and ES-3.

    Some general observations:

    – Vehicle weight is somewhat higher than it was in the 1970’s, but cars are much safer and more efficient. Vehicle weights plummeted in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, probably because of fuel prices. My sense is that this is the major reason Europe, Japan, etc. have smaller cars.

    – Beware of the EPA Definitions. The first chart shows a huge increase in the number of “truck SUV/s” but the definition of that is an SUV with AWD/4WD or more than 6,000 pounds. AWD and 4WD SUV’s are very popular, but doesn’t necessarily mean they are large or heavy vehicles.

    – Electric vehicles are heavy. If weight is a problem, then the more EV’s and hybrids we have, the heavier vehicles become. A Tesla sedan, for example, can weigh as much as a 3-row SUV.

    – The EPA started tracking “footprint” in 2005 since size doesn’t linearly correlate with weight. Footprint and weight have gone up in recent decades. but vehicle power and efficiency and gone up significantly more.

    – Modern vehicles have much higher performance today – that may be another factor. I looked up a few cars on zero-to-60 and the Subaru Ascent 3-row SUV we recently sold has a similar or faster 0-60 time than several Ferrari’s, Porsche’s and other sports cars in the 1970’s and 80’s.

    Anyway, I think the two big factors are gas prices and zoning. Gas prices I already mentioned and there is a lot of evidence that higher gas prices increases demand for smaller cars.

    Secondly is zoning – the reality is that trains and public transportation only work well in specific circumstances such has high density.

    And these two work in tandem because low gas prices mean that public transport is often not cheaper while being significantly less convenient.

    So the problem is us – we don’t like high gas prices, and NIMBY prevents rezoning for density.

  18. Mu Yixiao says:


    A couple researchers notice an uptick in pedestrian (and bike) strikes/deaths starting a while ago. Then they noticed that these incidents predominantly involved similar scenarios at intersections.

    After looking into it, they place a lot of the blame on significant size increase of the columns in a car–particularly between the windshield and passenger door. They’ve become so large that can obscure an entire person, or even a bicycle approaching from the right.

    (There are certain curves in the road on my commute where I have to lean over to the center of the car to see the approaching road. An F150 could be hiding behind that column, and I’d never see it).

  19. Mikey says:


    This brings up one of my (many) pet driving peeves: why, oh why don’t Americans realize the left lane is the passing lane? Once you are past your target you are supposed to move over.

    My 30-mile each way commute to/from work is largely on the highway and while I see plenty of utter shrieking idiocy during my daily drive, the one thing I have become 100% convinced of is most congestion and many accidents are caused by Americans’ non-existent lane discipline.

  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    That is something that I’ve noticed as well and it varies greatly depending on manufacturer. My Honda Pilot is awful and my wife’s Civic is bad. I drove a friends MB and several BMW’s and while the exterior width is similar the interior side is tapered, so the visibility is better. It is probably due to where the side curtain airbag is placed, is it in the A pillar or above the door?

    Interestingly our camper, a Ram Promaster chassis isn’t bad, but it is a vehicle designed to European specifications, being a rebadged Fiat Ducetto, though the airbag is in the A pillar.

  21. gVOR10 says:

    James quotes Jean-Pierre as noting traffic deaths roughly equal gun deaths. As is often noted, in response to traffic deaths we heavily regulated vehicles. Without which the number of traffic deaths would be considerably higher. But we’ve obviated much of the regulation by shifting, as James notes, to Chevy Suburbans and F-250s.

    I had a friend who swore his Suburban, with ABS and stability control could brake as well as anything. Being an amateur racer, he should have known better. As @MarkedMan: notes, ’tain’t so. I would add to Mark’s explanation of the lower accident rate for sedans that they’re simply smaller targets. A near miss in his Mini Cooper would be a solid hit in a Suburban.Not to mention the rollover thing. If you push a Mini too far, it slides. Push a Suburban too far it’s likely to roll over. A la Tiger Woods. Suspension tricks and electronics can only go so far. (I was driving in heavy rain a few weeks ago and had to turn off the stability control. Every time a wheel slipped a little it slammed on the brakes. Better to turn it off and just drive the thing. I’ve had the same thing on ice. With stability control I was stuck. Turned off I could just drive out.)

    And more of what @MarkedMan: said. FFS, pass and get out of left lane. I just did a five thousand mile tour of the midwest. I spent an awful lot of time in long lines in the left lane waiting for some fool to pass somebody. Push the cruise up two clicks for a minute and just do it. America. Every man has a god given right to drive in the fast lane, no matter how slowly. Probably saying, “I don’t know why everybody bitches about traffic, Maudey. There’s nobody in front of me.”

    However, my biggest impression from the trip, first long trip after COVID? We are a spectacularly wealthy country. In May even Wyoming is green. Further south, everything is lush except the winter wheat, which is being harvested into huge, numerous granaries (Why doesn’t granary have an “i”?) with huge tractors and combines. Four and more lane roads everywhere. Even a lot of US, not I, roads are four lane. Big trucks hauling all sorts of things everywhere. Massive bridges. Sprawling industrial areas. Rapidly growing wind and solar installations. Big distribution centers at seemingly every major intersection. I don’t know why we can’t act like a rich nation. Except for war.

  22. DK says:

    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.

    Hmmm. This is kinda like claiming comparing US gun deaths per capita isn’t useful because we have more guns than other developed countries. It’s useful because our gun fetishism is itself problemmatic.

    Similary, comparing per capita car deaths can be useful, because it highlights the American over-reliance on automobile transportation. Our excuse-making when it comes to mass transit infrastructure is the problem.

    Yes, we’re a huge, sprawled country, but I don’t think most car deaths are happening in the middle of nowhere on open highway. A sane, innovative country that still took on big projects (instead of coming up with a bunch of excuses why we can’t put a man on the moon) would have extensive rail networks in the more densely-populated areas where most car accidents are probably happening.

    Americans may indeed be as distracted as Europeans and Asians are, but playing on your phone throughout the drive from Manhattan to Boston has far more grave implications than playing on your phone sitting on a train from Berlin-Ostbahnhof to Frankfurt-Hautbahnhopf. Exponentially so.

  23. MarkedMan says:

    @Neil Hudelson: 32 years ago I was driving on a moderately busy residential street in New Orleans, at a reasonable speed. I was listening to the radio when I sort of noticed a child of about 2-3 years old running with his front yard, laughing delightedly. Didn’t really register. But then I noticed his mother running behind him with a look of panic on her face, so I hit the brakes hard. Just as I came to stop the kid popped out between two parked cars right in front of me. 32 years later I can still see this unfolding in front of my eyes, especially the look on the mother’s face as she popped out behind him and saw that I had stopped. Since that day I am very cautious about driving when there are cars parked on the side of a street.

  24. MarkedMan says:

    @Mu Yixiao: My wife, who is short, complains about the increasing size of the pillars all the time. Not just the B pillar, but all of them (A pillar is at the windshield, B pillar just aft of the front doors, C pillar at the rear window). You have to wonder if if we are trading securing the passengers in an accident by beefing up the impact resistance with having more accidents in the first place.

  25. Michael Reynolds says:


    This is kinda like claiming comparing US gun deaths per capita isn’t useful because we have more guns than other developed countries.

    Indeed. Traffic accident rates are not being driven (sorry) up by farmers in Nebraska. Traffic deaths are of necessity going to be more urban/suburban, IOW, in the same sorts of places where mass transit might be feasible. True, we cannot have commuter trains from Cowtown, Kansas to Mootown, Iowa, but we can within cities and inner ring suburbs. Where the people and thus the drivers and by extension the squished pedestrians are.

    Have not checked to see if this is accurate, but Las Vegas is considered – by locals – to have extraordinary numbers of pedestrian deaths. Something to do with tourists in rental cars meeting large masses of drunk pedestrians spilling off sidewalks.

  26. Andy says:


    I’ve experienced similar incidents. I’m a cautious driver in residential areas as a result, and I have tried to get my kids to be that way as well.

  27. gVOR10 says:

    @MarkedMan: A Tesla autopilot would have hit the kid. No way it would recognize a kid several feet from the road as a hazard. Hell, they can’t recognize parked fire trucks with flashing lights on the side of the road.

    @Sleeping Dog: You can hide a house behind the sloped, air bag equipped, A pillar on my Honda Odyssey. But the thing is largely designed by Honda NA Legal. In court it’s easy to blame the driver for not seeing a pedestrian. Honda loses if the side airbag proved insufficient.

  28. gVOR10 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Not sure of that. Totals, of course, are being driven by concentrations of people. But I seem to recall many months ago we all had a big argument about the idea that, per capita, Lower Hogwaller is more dangerous than Manhattan. With a certain amount of, ‘Traffic deaths shouldn’t count against us rural folk ’cause we have to drive long distances.’

  29. Andy says:

    Interesting data here for 2021:

    – I found it interesting that single-vehicle crashes made up over 50% of deaths in both urban and rural areas. Relative car size probably doesn’t matter much here.
    – Half of deaths are from vehicles traveling faster than 55mph.
    – Alcohol by drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists is still a major problem – 30% of deaths.
    – Seat belt use is still a major problem, with roughly half of deaths in vehicles coming from unbelted passengers.
    – After being stable and flat for decades, urban deaths only surpassed rural deaths starting in 2016.

    I did some quick calculations. Of the 42,939 deaths, here are the fatality percentages:
    Cars and minivans – 34%
    Pickups – 11%
    SUVs – 15%
    Large trucks (I’m guessing box trucks/semi’s) – 2%
    Motorcycles – 14%
    Pedestrians – 17%
    Bicyclists – 2%

  30. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Indeed. Traffic accident rates are not being driven (sorry) up by farmers in Nebraska. Traffic deaths are of necessity going to be more urban/suburban, IOW, in the same sorts of places where mass transit might be feasible.

    Well, once you dive into the details, it gets more complicated, which is why top-level per capita comparisons are of limited utility. For example, from the link I gave above:

    Urban and rural areas have fundamentally different characteristics with regard to density of road networks, land use and travel patterns. Consequently, the characteristics of fatal motor vehicle crashes differ between rural and urban areas. For example, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths and deaths at intersections are more prevalent in urban areas, whereas a larger proportion of large truck occupant deaths and deaths on high-speed roads occur in rural areas. Although 20 percent of people in the U.S. live in rural areas and 32 percent of the vehicle miles traveled occur in rural areas, 40 percent of crash deaths occur there.

    So, statistically, at least, you’re more likely to get killed in a motor vehicle accident in a rural than an urban area.

    Access to emergency care probably plays into this as well – if you’re on a highway in the sticks, the ER is further away.

  31. MarkedMan says:


    Pickups – 11%

    Whoa! 2022 was the highest volume year for pickup trucks and they only represented 4.4% of new car sales. 10 years ago it was 1.6%. So we can assume that, what, 3% of the cars on the road are pickup trucks? Yet they are responsible for 11% of traffic fatalities!?

    I always assumed pickup trucks were dangerous vehicles. When unloaded they have incredibly bad vehicle dynamics. And every year they sit higher, leading to overturning when trying to maneuver. And the newer ones have ever larger and larger grills, leaving huge blind spots when looking forward. But almost 4x the rate of all other vehicles! Astounding.

  32. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy: Having lived in a rural/exurban area, the lack of streetlights and the incredible f*ckin’ number of deer have to have a hand in this. When I lived there I once had to go to our local police department to gather all the traffic accidents in our area (long, boring story) and at least 90% were marked “HD”, for “Hit Deer”.

  33. Andy says:


    Where are you getting the 4.4% figure? The data I’ve seen is more like 17-20%. Here’s one example. and another.

  34. Richard Gardner says:

    I’m involved in this field (general transportation & transit to include traffic safety) and I’ve seen most of the points made here many times as every few months there is a new study or news article that grabs a a few data points and extrapolates into a desired generalization. Many cities have established “Vision Zero” programs in recent years to reduce serious accidents by measures such as reducing speed limits (cough, is it enforced?), only to see their accident rates go up. In many areas it looks like much of the increase (but not all) since the pandemic started is due to the massive increase in stolen cars being driven by folks who learned how to drive from video games such as Grand Theft Auto GTA, and/or high on drugs (such as fentanyl and meth). This is difficult to measure as the accident database likely does not include whether one of the vehicle involved was stolen, and it may have been a hit and run.
    My area has a serious issue with kids, many of whom dropped out of school during the pandemic and are now mostly 13-16 years old, stealing Kias and Hyundais and crashing them, sometimes with a fatality. The problem of these pandemic kids (COVID kids?) is starting to be recognized. The drug addicts mostly steal larger vehicles to strip and part out, or just drive around.
    In my city many of the serious vehicle accidents involve hitting a fixed object (roughly a third), well above the national average.

  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    In court it’s easy to blame the driver for not seeing a pedestrian.

    Legally, the driver has an obligation to devise a way to see the pedestrian. “I didn’t see…” is generally a non-starter.

  36. anjin-san says:

    I’ve been driving in the Bay Area since the mid-70s. In the last few years, the presence of the California Highway Patrol seems greatly diminished.

    People driving like absolute lunatics & even racing on the highways is a common sight, and the people doing it clearly have no fear of the CHP. Is anyone else having similar experiences where they live?

    Until declines in my eyesight and reflexes caused me to change the way I drive, I always had hot cars and liked to drive a little on the fast side. What’s going on now is something else entirely.

  37. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan: @Andy: I live in the pseudo-rural outer ring of Portland (OR) metro, so I’m an outlier. Took my car in for service the other day. The dealer’s new inventory includes 10 larger (Silverado-size, extended cab) pickups. 14 regular sized pickups, 15 SUVs, 2 compacts and no sedans/coupes, but one “muscle” Camaro. The Subaru dealership (same owner) across the street is all SUVs–both in new and used car lots. I have to side with Andy, though I know those two lots may well be outliers in the larger market. Lots of people in the PNW drive PUs and SUVs tho. Most cars I encounter driving on the freeways seem to be either or.

  38. Kazzy says:

    “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.”

    This creates an endless arms race in favor of ever bigger cars. My fiance drove the Chevy Equinox for years. I also drive a Chevy Equinox, albeit an older model. She recently “upgraded” to the Traverse and now feels unsafe driving my car because it’s too small. She insisted on the Equinox for years (to drive around herself and one child) because it was safer… then she got the bigger car… and now the Equinox feels insufficient. Onward and upward.

  39. Mu says:

    One major difference between Europe and the US is the much higher speed of trucks. In most countries in Europe, trucks have a lower speed limit than cars. 40 tons going 75 mph (speed limit out west) is a lot more of kinetic energy is it hits at the end of a pileup than a EU truck going 50.

  40. dazedandconfused says:

    I’d like to see a study of average age of drivers in fatal accidents by nation. Here in the US even the dumbest kids can usually find a way to afford a car. This is not the condition for most.

  41. gVOR10 says:

    @Kazzy: I feel safer in my Mazdaspeed 3. Active defense v passive.

  42. Jen says:

    @dazedandconfused: There’s also vehicle inspection requirements here that are a bit…lax, compared to European countries.

    There pretty much is no such thing as a “beater” car in Germany. When we moved back to the US, one of my father’s most frequent utterances while driving was to look at a car with minor damage and say, “that’d never pass the TÜV.” It’s a very detailed inspection and if you miss it by 2 months or more, they ramp it up and it’s an even MORE detailed inspection. Which you pay an additional 20% for.

  43. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy: Very embarrassed. That was a world wide number, not a US one. My bad.

  44. DK says:

    @Richard Gardner:

    My area has a serious issue with kids, many of whom dropped out of school during the pandemic and are now mostly 13-16 years old, stealing Kias and Hyundais and crashing them, sometimes with a fatality.

    Omg. What in the sam’s hell…?

  45. Kazzy says:

    “Many cities have established “Vision Zero” programs…”

    NYC has done this and the branding always struck me as… odd. Having zero vision while driving seems like a very good way to experience an accident.

  46. steve says:

    Not being able to get people care quickly in rural areas is a big factor. Some people assume a chopper will show up and get you to care quickly but most systems don’t have many choppers and in bad weather they don’t fly. So the ambulance has choice between driving 90 minutes or going to a small local hospital that won’t have a surgical team in house and may only have 6 or 8 units of blood total (no blood products) in house and available.


  47. Kazzy says:


    It took me a while to find comfort driving larger vehicles. It was much harder to know where the ‘boundaries’ of my car were.

    Of course, there is “feeling” safe and actually being safe. I’m curious what the numbers show. For my fiance, she more or less has said she just wants to be in the larger vehicle if she does experience an accident, presuming the bigger guy ‘wins’. She’s had a few minor accidents that I always suspect might have been even more minor had they involved smaller cars (both hers and others). I had multiple fender benders in my 1995 Ford Escort and walked away unscathed every time. The other cars were also smaller so there was only so much force to throw around. She ended up with (thankfully minor) injuries after each of her accidents, all of which involved large SUVs bumping one another.

    A quick Google tells me the Escort weighed 2300 pounds while the Traverse weighs 4300 pounds. So add an extra ton (per vehicle) and, yea, that changes things.

  48. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kazzy: Yeah, I read it a ‘zero vision’ too. It’s actually (a) vision (pipe dream?) of having zero fatalities. (As in wish in one hand and urinate in the other?)

  49. Gustopher says:


    In short, if I had to put money on it, I would guess that distracted driving (including DUIs) is the main issue here.

    So, you believe that Americans are more distracted and drunk compared to ten years ago, and that Europe does not have this problem?

    This doesn’t pass the smell test.

  50. Gustopher says:


    Not being able to get people care quickly in rural areas is a big factor.

    Has care in rural areas plummeted in the past decade?

    (The answer is, yes, a little bit, but not nearly enough to account for the differences)

  51. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    presuming the bigger guy ‘wins’

    Well, not always.
    I learned to drive big cars–driver’s ed, late 60s, still dealer donated cars–but never got used to them. My second new car (and last until 2015) was a Renault Le Car (R-5) that looked almost identical to the attached picture. Same color and everything. On my way to visit Luddite at the home for wayward boys one day, it got totalled. I was driving on SR-12 at about 50 when a GTE service truck entered the lane from the left waaaaay to late for me to avoid him. (He didn’t see a Crayola color Lime green car some how.) We collided squarely with my front grill striking almost exactly on the hub of his front passenger side wheel. It was a spectacular collision. The best (and last) of my collisions.

    My car was totaled (of course), but I tenaciously fought to get the victory-denying tie against his signficantly bigger F-350. The collision had snapped my transaxle (the claims adjuster asserted that when the car came to rest my wheels/transaxle had rotated 180 degrees), but I had also totaled GTE’s truck. The collision broke the front end completely off the frame. Collision geometry is amazing sometimes.

    So no, the bigger car doesn’t always ‘win.’

    ETA: RATS! My picture didn’t take. Here’s the article about the car (not my car specifically, though). https://dailyturismo.com/5k-glory-b1978-renault-le-car-r5/ (And I had the convertable roof, not the hardtop.)

    AETA: For the recond, the review in the article is pretty truthful. But I still loved the car.

  52. Gustopher says:

    For everyone with their pet theories, you need to account for two things:

    – it is worse in the US now than it was a decade ago.

    – the rest of the world has largely not followed suit.

    So, some change that was localized to the US, with no parallels elsewhere.

    The big change that we know about that matches both of those criteria is the US moving towards SUVs and other trucks for passenger vehicles.

    I would also note that bicycling has increased in the US, while infrastructure is lagging. If the increase in fatalities includes a lot of dead bicyclists, I wouldn’t be surprised, but that is going to be a very urban phenomenon, and the fatalities are increasing more broadly.

    There are some people suggesting that there is now less aggressive law enforcement, particularly since the “police shouldn’t shoot black people at traffic stops” protests. The increase in car fatalities started before that, so if it were an enforcement issue it predates that.

    I would toss in street design, as there have been a lot of cities changing the way intersections work and adding bike lanes. The intent is to reduce accidents, but there is always the chance of unintended consequences— perhaps drivers avoid those streets, and we are putting more traffic into less safe streets as a result. Plausible, but would likely show up as very localized jumps in accident and death rates, which isn’t what we are seeing.

    Data I have been quickly skimming for and haven’t seen is the rate of car crashes, not fatalities. Split by pedestrian involved and not. Are we seeing more crashes, or more deadly crashes?

    My wild guess for pedestrians getting run over is both — SUVs have a blind spot in front of them, and they weigh a lot more, so they have a greater chance of having an hitting a pedestrian, and of killing the pedestrian they do hit. I don’t have the data to back that up at my fingertips though. (I can make similar arguments for cars hitting other cars, but modern cars have safety cages that are improving while pedestrians generally don’t)

    I would also want to split the data out by county or even zip code, and categorize it by density. Rural, Suburban and Urban may well have different patterns.

    Still pretty sure it’s the SUVs though.

  53. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Both SUVs and trucks are designed to push objects with which they collide under the vehicle*, whereas passenger auto design currently rolls the pedestrian up onto the hood (or bonnet in the UK), though whether that constitutes a “safety” feature is open to debate.

    But yeah, it’s probably the SUVs and PUs.

    *And is this feature where the “throwing LBGTQ+s under the bus/truck” meme comes from? Asking for a friend.

  54. steve says:

    Gustopher- We have lost over 100 rural hospitals in the last 10 years. Access is becoming more difficult so we are not doing well on quantity.Its harder to quantify if quality has gotten worse, but we have known for a long time that outcomes are worse in small rural hospitals. There are a few shining stars here and there that work well up to the limits of their capabilities, but those are always going to be limited. Then you have many, many rural hospitals that have a significant number of marginal providers. Combining limited facilities/staffing with marginal staff makes for poor outcomes.


  55. gVOR10 says:


    they weigh a lot more, so they have a greater chance of having an hitting a pedestrian, and of killing the pedestrian they do hit.

    My understanding is that it isn’t the weight, but the hood height on SUVs and pickups. Besides the blind spot, a sedan hits the pedestrian or bicyclist thigh high and rolls them over the hood. A tall pickup or SUV takes them in the chest.

  56. Frank says:

    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.

    This remark by Dr. Joyner seems to dismiss the claim about speed limits in the article rather too quickly. Why assume the article author here is talking about the speed limit on motorways rather than other roads? Yes, the speed limit on many motorways in the EU can be quite high, but there’s a lot of low speed limits on other roads, near urban areas, etc, and the practical speed limit on motorways is also often reduced. I don’t know for sure but I also suspect relatively more USA traffic is on motorways, whereas more EU traffic (especially within cities, to a greater extent than the USA) will be on non-motorways which likely will have lower speed limits.

  57. Richard Gardner says:

    From my Sheriff’s Blotter today (Monday still for me, and about 2/3rds of the population is in incorporated cities and not in these stats)

    Over the weekend (Saturday and Sunday), 8 vehicles were reported stolen in Unincorporated Pierce County, and attempts were made on an additional 8 vehicles. Of those, 14 were Kia or Hyundai models. None of the owners reported having a theft-deterrent device, such as a steering wheel lock. One of the attempted-theft victims did report that she recently had the Kia/Hyundai software upgrade completed.

    Having tracked this issue locally for over a year I can tell you it was mostly 12-18 year olds going after the Kias and Hyundais, likely the next generation of thugs, gang-bangers, yobs, hooligans (whatever you want to call them – not part of the Social Contract, takers). I’m looking ahead and see an issue.
    They steal these cars and use tik-tok or similar social media (Instagram, telegraph…) to show their joy ride that result in a serious collisions (ain’t no accident). This is an emotional high, look at me.
    You are comparing lemons and limes (both citrus, not apples and oranges) when you compare pre-Covid and post-Covid automotive fatalities (and serious incidents).
    Plus add in the if I drive like a mad man the cops will break off pursuit. The concept of crime deterrence disappeared (BLM, etc) and a very small percentage of the population became aggressively anti-social. In May 2022 in my city an unhoused person with over 20 warrants for possession of a stolen vehicle (since April 2020 – basically one non-arrest per month) was handcuffed and put into the back of the cop car and taken to the County Jail for booking (just reopened for non-violent offenders coming out of Covid). He stated “You can’t do this, it isn’t allowed.” He thought he had a permanent get of of jail free card.
    Going back to the topic of this post, I don’t trust the numbers and the anecdotes, particularly comparisons to 2019 and before – real different now.

  58. Jen says:


    For everyone with their pet theories, you need to account for two things:

    – it is worse in the US now than it was a decade ago.

    – the rest of the world has largely not followed suit.

    So, some change that was localized to the US, with no parallels elsewhere.

    The big change that we know about that matches both of those criteria is the US moving towards SUVs and other trucks for passenger vehicles.

    Global SUV sales set a record in 2021. I can attest that there are many, many more SUVs in the UK than there were 15 years ago (that’s when I started making almost annual trips there).

    There are a lot of factors that go into these statistics. My “pet theories” as you call them arise from years of having lived overseas, and more recently, frequent visits during which we drive. I can say with a fair amount of confidence that Americans are worse drivers and they are far, far more likely to be distracted while driving.

  59. James Joyner says:

    @Frank: I posted the EU regulations (from the EU website) in the OP. Yes, it’s true that speed limits on local roads are often slower. Mostly because, as also noted in the OP, those roads are often quite narrow because the towns long predate cars. I have no idea about the relative share of time Americans and Europeans spend on major highways vs local roads.