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For the Injured And For A Safer Iowa

Road deaths are dropping worldwide, but not in the US. Why not?

On Behalf of | Dec 7, 2022 | Auto Accidents |

You may have read the stories that traffic fatalities actually rose during the pandemic even though far fewer people were driving. That’s true, and it needs to be addressed. Yet it’s also part of a larger trend.

During the 90s, before standard air bags and safer car frames, the fatality rate was predictably high worldwide. Then the floodgates of safety technology seemed to open. Each year, there were new innovations in vehicle safety and greater seat belt compliance. As the percentage of cars with these features grew and more people wore their seat belts, fatalities dropped.

Now, they are on the rise again, at least in the United States. In most of the rest of the world, traffic fatalities have dropped dramatically and seem poised to continue downward. In the U.S., there has been a significant drop since the 1990s, but the line has been rising for the past 10 years or so.

In the 90s, the rate of traffic fatalities was about the same in the U.S. and France. Now, people are three times more likely to die in a car wreck here than there.

Worse, the growing fatality rate is even more pronounced among bikers, motorcyclists and pedestrians. These are the most vulnerable users of our roadways because they aren’t in a vehicle.

The rest of the developed world has seen a drop in fatalities among vulnerable road users. The U.S. has not. Even as the number of bikers, motorcyclists, pedestrians and users of alternative transportation has risen, so has their death rate in the U.S. There has been no safety in numbers.

Why are fatalities rising in the U.S. but not most of the rest of the world?

Our road system is partly to blame, but so are our priorities

The New York Times recently published a detailed discussion of this problem. One important thing they found is that America’s transportation system is primarily intended to move vehicles quickly. Moving people safely is not its main concern.

We prioritize motor vehicles in virtually every area of the transportation system. Comparatively, our nation has spent very little on the priorities of other road users.

“Motor vehicles are first, highways are first, and everything else is an afterthought,” the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board told the Times.

A researcher at the Urban Institute showed the Times that other developed countries started prioritizing the safety of vulnerable road users in the 2000s. They started requiring carmakers and street designers to focus on how these road users could be safer.

As a result, other countries have lowered speed limits, for example, and installed more protected bike lanes. They required more vehicle safety technology to be standard on more cars. They changed the shape of vehicle hoods so they would be less deadly to pedestrians and bikers.

In the U.S., vehicles keep getting bigger and heavier – and thus much more dangerous to non-vehicle road users. Our five-star federal rating system doesn’t even take pedestrian and bicycle safety into account.

Since 1994, the fatality rate among motor vehicle drivers has dropped by 10%. The fatality rate among motorcyclists has jumped by a stunning 140%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Fatalities among pedestrians are up 19% since 1994. Deaths among bicyclists are up 17%.

We have to stop tolerating these deaths

Ultimately, the conclusion we come to is that Americans haven’t had to political will to do what it takes to reduce the fatality rate for pedestrians, bikers and motorcyclists.

The Times analysis mentioned narrowing city streets where bikers are present, for example. This could give drivers a strong cue to slow down.

Other countries have been designing a transportation system that limits the impact of human error and emotion. Shouldn’t we do that, too?