US Highway Safety Targets and Achievements are Far Too Low

Editorial Opinion from Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.

By:  Eddie Wren

August 1, 2005

Among developed nations, only Greece and the Republic of Korea perform worse than the USA in terms of 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, which is a reduction of just 16.2 percent over that 39-year period, in the number of people killed annually on America’s roads.

And if one examines road-fatality statistics for a recent ten year period (1992-2001), 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 that 10-year period alone, 18 of those countries achieved greater reductions in overall death rates than the USA has managed in the aforementioned 39-year period.

The US DOT generally publishes only the VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) rate of deaths, which is 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, and yet in just those three years added together, they represent a staggering 128,525 lives lost on America’s roads, and millions more people who were seriously injured.

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 such a high per capita road-death rate, when compared to virtually all other developed nations, and the answer comes back that it is because Americans travel higher mileages than do people in other countries. But that reply is disingenuous. If that truly were the primary cause, one could expect the majority of deaths to happen on the roads where people do the high mileages, such as interstates and freeways. Yet over half of all America’s road deaths occur on the very 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 driven by American families each year. The difference in the annual mileage of a typical family car in the USA compared to other countries is insignificant when 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 relation to every 100,000 members 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 actually reduce slightly in each successive year 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 be increasing annually. So in both cases a small reduction is only a statistical achievement and not a significant gain. The higher the initial rate, the less valuable a small reduction becomes.

Indeed, it is even possible for the VMT rate to fall when the number of deaths actually 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).

If we now turn our attention to the internationally much more popular per capita method of measuring road deaths and safety achievements, one finds that the USA is languishing in a very poor 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 rates of 14.9 and 15.24, respectively.

Yet the two leading countries — Britain and Sweden — had rates in the 5.8s and another three countries had rates below 7. And no matter what U.S. officials might say about such comparisons, some of these countries certainly do have factors which 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 casualties 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 hardest task in achieving further significant reductions. Yet, by comparison, in 2004 the UK cut its overall death toll by 8.2 percent (3,508 to 3,221) compared to the USA’s reduction of just 0.6 percent (42,884 to 42,636). And in light of the fact that America’s population is less than five times greater than that of the UK, there is something clearly amiss with the US figures.

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

American people — and in particular 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 if the American people are assured that things are pretty good on the safety front it will serve only to encourage complacency — the most dangerous enemy of all where road deaths are concerned.

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.