Any time we talk about traffic safety in the U.S., there’s a tendency for a lot of people to dismiss any concerns and argue there isn’t anything we can do. It just is what it is. Americans love to drive, so there’s no point in trying to change things. Sure, drivers in other countries may kill fewer people, but those applications won’t work here because Americans are special or different. But looking at the country’s rising number of road deaths, it’s clear something needs to change.
Bloomberg’s City Lab recently took a dive into the statistics, and it’s truly a depressing read. The problem isn’t just that road deaths in the U.S. are higher than they are in other countries. It’s that even though other countries are getting safer, things in America continue to get worse:
11.4 Americans per 100,000 died in crashes in 2020, a number that dwarfs countries including Spain (2.9), Israel (3.3) and New Zealand (6.3). And unlike most developed nations, US roadways have grown more deadly during the last two decades (including during the pandemic), especially for those outside of cars. Last year saw the most pedestrians killed in the US in 40 years, and deaths among those biking rose 44% from 2010 to 2020.
That’s bad. Really bad. And while those countries listed are smaller, with higher population density than the U.S., if you look just across the border in more comparable Canada, “the likelihood of dying in a crash is 60% lower.”
City Lab also points out that these discrepancies are a somewhat newer development. In 1979, the risk of dying in a car crash in the U.S. was more or less in line with other developed nations. Fast forward to 2021, and road deaths in the U.S. were at a 16-year high. Meanwhile, Japan and Norway’s numbers were the lowest they’d been since the 1940s.
Additionally, while other developed nations have generally been getting safer for pedestrians, the U.S. has not. Between 2010 and 2018, pedestrian deaths increased by 40 percent.
The increase in smartphone usage may initially sound like a plausible explanation, but that doesn’t really make sense. Smartphones are also ubiquitous in countries that are getting safer.
Unfortunately for people who love to drive, the policies that appear to be responsible for fewer deaths are ones that don’t prioritize making sure cars can go anywhere as fast, cheaply, and conveniently as possible. Making America safer would likely mean replacing intersections with roundabouts, adding traffic cameras, implementing road diets, and banning cars from certain dense urban areas.
It would also mean requiring new cars to meet minimum pedestrian safety requirements and making it more inconvenient to own large vehicles such as full-size trucks and SUVs. Research cited by City Lab has already tied the increasing popularity of those vehicles to the rise in traffic deaths. The federal government just hasn’t done anything about it. Perhaps adding a fee based on vehicle weight like France has would be the way to go. And while it wouldn’t be popular, the federal gas tax probably needs to be raised to encourage people to drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars that are also less dangerous to pedestrians.
Yes, these changes would be inconvenient and would require Americans to give up some of the things they’re accustomed to. But we’re talking about people dying here. People with families, friends, and coworkers. People whose deaths are each devastating to hundreds of other people. Taking Lord Farquaad’s approach that “some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make” just because you want to drive your Ram TRX through Manhattan would be absolutely sociopathic.
We need to make our streets safer. Period. If that means that driving gets less convenient, so be it. No joyride or convenient parking space is worth someone else’s life.