Why Are US Road Death Rates Higher Than Other Countries?

us road death rates higher than other countriesEvery year the Centers for Disease Control bring Americans some good news and bad news in the area of motor vehicle safety.

The good news is that fewer people are dying on US roads than they used to. The bad news is that other countries are eating our lunch in the contest to see whose roads are safest.

Why is that? The main reason 32,000 people died in US car crashes in the US last year were:

  • Drunk driving
  • Not using seat belts, car seats and booster seats
  • Speeding

It’s hard to figure out which of these is the most preventable. Looking at them on the page, they all seem ridiculously easy to avoid.

But why do other high-income countries have fewer fatalities per passenger mile? Among the reasons the CDC offers are:

Aggressively enforced seat belt laws. Police can stop and ticket vehicles in which driver or passenger are not buckled up. US seat belt laws, which are state laws, are all over the place.

Some only cover minors or small children, and some laws only mandate that people occupying the front seat use seat belts. A more thorough approach, perhaps with federal incentives, might help bring road deaths down.

  • Lower BAC levels. The US considers anyone with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or over legally drunk. Many countries have an .05 or .02 level, and it’s enforced aggressively.
    In fact, the US ranks second highest among high-income countries in crash deaths due to alcohol – 31% of all road deaths (Canada is the winner at 34%. Sweden, with its .02 BAC and use of ignition interlocks in fleet and government vehicles, is at 19%).
  • Safety technology. Some countries require ignition interlocks – devices which prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking – to be installed whenever there is a drunk driving conviction. Currently just 27 states have such laws here, and compliance is spotty.
  • Vigilance. Other high-income countries seem to be on the lookout for drunk drivers and speeders. Sobriety checkpoints are common, as are red-light cameras.

These comparisons yield the CDC’s recommendations. To reduce the number of alcohol-related road fatalities, the agency recommends we follow the example of other advance countries and

  • Expand sobriety checkpoints
  • Enforce existing .08 BAC laws and underage drinking laws
  • Consider ignition interlocks for DUI offenders – including first offenders

These recommendations seem far from impossible. Many states are tackling these problems on their own. But federal incentives on matters like ignition interlocks would go a long way toward saving lives. It worked before with seat belts and crash tolerances. It could work again with the next generation of automotive safety technology.