US Highway Safety Targets and Achievements are Far Too Low

Editorial Opinion from Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.

By:  Eddie Wren

August 1, 2022

Among developed nations, only Greece and the Republic of Korea perform worse than the USA regarding road safety.

In a press release today from the U.S. Department of Transportation about highway deaths in 2004, it is stated that “the fatality rate has been steadily improving since 1966 when 50,894 people died” (compared to the 42,636 people who died on the nation’s highways in 2004).

That represents 8,258 fewer deaths in 2004 than in 1966, a reduction of just 16.2 percent over those 39 years in the number of people killed annually on America’s roads.

And suppose one examines road-fatality statistics for a recent ten-year period (1992-2001). In that case, one finds that of the relevant 23 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], the USA performed the worst, with an overall reduction in road deaths of just four percent, compared to the average of 25 percent among the other 22 countries.

Indeed, during those ten years alone, 18 countries achieved more significant reductions in overall death rates than the USA managed in the aforementioned 39-year period.

The US DOT generally publishes only the VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) rate of deaths based on the number of deaths for every 100 million miles covered by all vehicles, collectively, throughout the USA each year.

This results in a psychologically insignificant number. For instance, the US VMT rate for 2004 was 1.46 — down from 1.48 in 2003 and 1.51 in 2002.

Those figures sound small and almost benign, yet in just those three years added together, they represent a staggering 128,525 lives lost on America’s roads and millions more seriously injured people.

Interestingly, the US DOT has set a target for reducing this VMT rate to 1.00 by the year 2008, but given that it fell by only 0.03 in each of the last two years and still has a further 0.46 to go in the four remaining years (2005 through 2008) then success seems immensely unlikely.

And what exactly does it mean, this link between miles traveled and the number of deaths?

Ask any governmental official why the USA has a higher per capita road death rate than other developed nations. Of course, the answer is that Americans travel higher mileage than people in other countries. But that reply is disingenuous. If that were the primary cause, one could expect most deaths on roads where people do high mileage, such as interstates and freeways. Yet over half of all America’s road deaths occur on the same roads where much lower mileages are generally driven — rural roads.

And if it were all to do with the size of the country and the large distances between major cities, why do — say — Canada and Australia not have similarly high death rates?

Nor is it to do with the average mileage American families drive each year. The difference in the annual mileage of a typical family car in the USA compared to other countries is insignificant compared to the disparity in the respective death rates.

The per capita death rate mentioned above is the number of people killed in road crashes in about every 100,000 of that country’s population.

Just as with the situation here in America, if a country can manage to hold the actual number of road deaths relatively steady each year, then the per capita death rate will reduce each successive year slightly because the population is continually growing. And similarly, the VMT rate will reduce each year because the overall vehicle miles traveled in that country will increase annually. So, in both cases, a slight reduction is only a statistical achievement, not a significant gain. Moreover, the higher the initial rate, the less valuable a slight decrease becomes.

Indeed, it is even possible for the VMT rate to fall when the number of deaths increases, and this has happened at least four times in America in just the last ten years (i.e., 1996, 1999, 2000, and 2001 — Source: FARS).

Let’s now focus on the internationally much more popular per capita method of measuring road deaths and safety achievements. Again, one finds that the USA is languishing in an inferior position.

In 2003, for example, America had a per capita road-death rate of 14.75, and for 2004, based on an estimated population of 293 million, the rate should be around 14.55 [Rates for 54 countries, for 2003, here.]

Among the 30 member countries of the OECD, only the Republic of Korea and Greece performed more poorly in 2003, with 14.9 and 15.24, respectively.

Yet the two leading countries — Britain and Sweden — had rates in the 5.8s and another three below 7. And no matter what U.S. officials might say about such comparisons, some of these countries certainly do have factors that should make them less safe than America, such as smaller cars, faster overall speed limits, and — in some cases — a much higher proportion of congested roads.

It is also a well-known and rather obvious fact that when countries have achieved significant reductions, over the years, in the rate of road casualties, it becomes progressively harder to make further improvements (because all of the best methods of cutting losses have already been implemented in getting to that point in the first place). But this begs a further question about America’s 2004 achievement.

Of all developed nations, Great Britain has had the lowest per capita road death rate more times in the last 17 years than any other country and, therefore, undeniably has the most challenging task of achieving further significant reductions. Yet, by comparison, in 2004, the U.K. cut its overall death toll by 8.2 percent (3,508 to 3,221) compared to the USA’s decline of just 0.6 percent (42,884 to 42,636). And because AmerAmerica’s population beings greater than that of the U.K., there is something amiss with the U.S. figures.

This argument is nothing to do with nationalism or inter-country rivalry; this is to do with American lives.

American people — particularly young American people — are being slaughtered in highway crashes at an outrageous rate, and no matter what the US DOT is saying about “record low highway fatality rates,” any gains that America is making are very small indeed.

What improvements could be made to reduce the number of deaths?…………. Many!

And the first and arguably the most important one is that the US DOT and other official bodies should stop perpetrating the dangerous myth that America is doing quite well at highway safety. The figures from other developed ‘Highly Motorized Countries’ [HMCs] show that, comparatively speaking, this oft-heard claim is incredibly inaccurate.

But suppose the American people are assured that things are pretty good on the safety front. In that case, it will only encourage complacency- the most dangerous enemy of all concerning road deaths.

Over 20 countries — including many that are already far ahead of the USA in terms of highway safety results — are now working on targets to reduce the actual number of people killed on their respective roads by either 40 or 50 percent by either 2010 or 2012 (with these variables depending on the specific countries in question).

Regrettably, the USA has no such target. But it should!

Eddie Wren, Executive Director, Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.