It is a sad and frankly reprehensible fact that American people are led to believe that the USA performs to a high standard in road safety when the opposite is actually the truth.
U.S. Government departments, state DOTs, police departments and other official bodies are very keen to write “didn’t-we-do-well” style publicity messages while hiding the big picture, or in some cases apparently not even understanding the situation themselves!
What follows is a series of excerpts from the Road Safety Annual Report 2019 and comments from Road Safety USA about America’s poor standards over the last three decades, although the problems go back significantly further than that.
The 2019 edition of this in-depth document “contains the most recent road safety data and up-to-date information for 41 countries…” on the basis that “improving road safety and [reducing] the number of casualties requires permanent and continuous actions based on the analysis of solid data…”
The report contains many comparisons regarding road deaths in 2017 vis-a-vis 2010. In this context, just “four (of the 41) countries registered an increase in the number of road deaths in the period 2010-17: the United States (+12.5%), Argentina (+4%), New Zealand (+1.1%), and Iceland” (8 more fatalities).
Road Safety Indicators
In 2017, “five countries recorded a mortality rate equal to or lower than 3 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants: Norway (2), Sweden (2.5), Switzerland (2.7), the United Kingdom (2.8), and Denmark (3). In the year 2000 the best performing (the United Kingdom) had a mortality rate of 6.1…” By comparison [in 2017], “three countries registered a mortality rate above 10 road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants: Chile (10.4), the United States (11.4), and Argentina (12).”
Across the 41 countries, “the number of pedestrians killed increased [in total] by 2.7% between 2010 and 2017. However this increase is very largely attributable to the rise in pedestrian fatalities in [just] the United States (+38.9%)…”
“The total number of cyclists killed decreased [overall] by 5.9% over the same period…” However, in the United States cyclist deaths increased by almost 26 percent, “from 623 to 783.”…
Overview of Road Fatality Trend, 2010-17
This data, from Table 2, shows 33 countries with validated data. Twenty-nine of those countries achieved reductions in road fatalities over the period of 2010 through 2016, up to a cut of 48.6% in Norway. The USA, however, was the only country with a significant increase in annual road deaths in that period, to 37,806 from 32,999 in 2010 — up by 12.5 percent. This result puts the USA in 32nd position among the aforementioned 33 countries, and this, very regrettably, is typical of America’s performance over at least the last three decades if not for half a century.
Table 3 in the report shows the USA, in 2017, to be:
- 32nd out of 33 countries for deaths per 100,000 inhabitants;
- 16th out of 20 countries for deaths per billion vehicle kilometers (VMT);
- 27th out of 31 countries for deaths per 10,000 registered vehicles.
Road Safety Strategies and Targets
America‘s stated road safety ‘Vision’ is shown — not for the first time — as: “Dedicated to achieving the highest standards of excellence in motor vehicle safety and in reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes.”
And the stated ‘Target’ of the USA is:
- Performance targets set to end 2019
- 1.02 fatalities per hundred million vehicle miles travelled in 2019
- Performance measures for four sub-measures: large trucks, passenger vehicles, non-occupants, and motorcyclists.
Those targets appear to us to be about as non-committal as it is possible to be.
Sadly but very clearly, the USA will have to make huge, unprecedented improvements if it is ever to achieve the above ‘vision’ of ‘excellence.’ To put this into perspective, refer back to the Road Safety Indicators paragraph, above. Even if the USA was only to match the mortality rate of Denmark (i.e. 3) — arguably the lowest ranking of the existing ‘excellence’ group — America’s 37,133 deaths in 2017 would need to be cut by an effectively unimaginable 74 percent, to 9,650 road deaths per year.
The laudable Vision Zero goals that several American states are now pursuing are indeed excellent, but Sweden, the inventor of Vision Zero, has been pursuing such since 1999 and is still only at a mortality rate of 2.5 itself. Sweden and Britain, the joint, long-term co-leaders in road safety excellence, also started their big pushes towards minimal road deaths from much further up the proverbial ladder than the USA is currently at. Once again, see the Road Safety Indicators paragraph, above, where it states “in the year 2000 the best performing country (the United Kingdom) had a mortality rate of 6.1…” then compare that to the USA’s current rate of 11.4.
Indeed, the USA and its individual states would do well to keep a more open mind and study the various methods used by all high-performing countries over say the last 20 years, rather than pinning all of their hopes to just the Vision Zero approach, no matter how laudable the latter undoubtedly is. So-called ‘cherry picking’ might be an even more productive approach, with suitable (but not ‘undermining’) adaptations being made for American road safety culture.
For more details on the performance of the USA, see: