Making Both Autos and Highways Safer

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes that “America is now an outlier on driving deaths.” He is partly right and partly wrong.

He is right that auto fatality rates per billion vehicle miles in the United States are a little higher than in many other countries and that highway safety has grown in other countries faster than in the U.S. But this is because roads elsewhere were far more dangerous than they have been in the United States for a long time. The reality is that other countries have caught up with the U.S., not that the U.S. has fallen behind.

For example, according to data published by the OECD, in 1990 Austria suffered 32 deaths per billion vehicle kilometers compared with just 13 in the U.S. By 2014, Austria’s fatalities had fallen to 5.4, while the U.S. had fallen to 6.7. Yes, Austria’s had fallen more but only because they were so bad in the first place.

Nor is the United States an outlier. When most of the countries in the sample are between 4 and 9 fatalities per billion kilometers, the United States, at 7, is disappointingly above average, but it isn’t an outlier. At 15, the Czech Republic is the outlier.

Moreover, the fairly small differences between the United States and other countries such as Japan, France, and Austria could be as much due to differences in reporting methods as to actual differences in road safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration counts a fatality if someone dies within 30 days of an accident; other countries may only include people who die within 7 says of an accident.

Leonhardt supports “evidence-based campaigns to reduce vehicle crashes,” which sounds great–except it isn’t clear that he knows what that means. The only evidence he cites is a researcher who says, “The overwhelming factor is speed.” But Germany, whose autobahns famously have no speed limits, claims one of the lowest fatality rates. American interstate freeways have lower fatality rates than other highways even though they have higher speed limits.

A number of western states recently raised the speed limits on their rural freeways to 80 mph, yet fatalities on those roads have declined, in some cases significantly: between 2005 and 2015, rates fell by 67 percent in New Mexico, 59 percent in Utah, 49 percent in Wyoming, and 38 percent in Nevada. Would they have declined more if speed limits hadn’t been raised? Perhaps, but fatality rates on freeways in Oregon, which didn’t raise its speed limit above 70, actually grew by 16 percent.

Leonhardt doesn’t mention it, but the truly worrisome problem is the increase in fatality rates in the past two or three years. But this isn’t a problem specific to the United States: most other countries have also seen an increase in fatality rates.

Although Leonhardt is right that driverless cars are likely to greatly reduce this problem in a couple of decades, in the meantime there are no simple answers. We know from history that American fatality rates have declined both because of safer cars and safer roads. Construction of the Interstate Highway System saved thousands of lives per year by attracting traffic from more dangerous roads to some of the safest roads in the world.

Auto manufacturers continue to make cars safer, with vehicle stability control, auto braking, and plenty of airbags. Unfortunately, most state governments are not doing their part by building safer highways since, for the most part, we aren’t building new highways. Penalizing motorists for the failure of state and local road departments to make safer roads by, for example, arbitrarily reducing speed limits is not going to solve the problem.


3 thoughts on “Making Both Autos and Highways Safer

  1. LazyReader

    Try reading Darrell Huff’s Book “How to lie with statistics”
    The fact is stats are stats. News agencies are quick to switch from totals or per capitas if it suits a narrative they’re trying to push. Gun violence, auto accidents, carbon emissions, blah blah blah.

    The biggest outlier in the US is infant mortality. How can an advanced 1st world nation have such a high infant mortality rate. That’s because in the US pre-natal deaths count as fatalities, in other countries that’s not an issue. In Germany or Switzerland, a baby must be in weight in grams to qualify as “alive” or size in centimeters. Gotta love that metric system.

    The CDC ranks the United States 27th of the 34 developed nations, with 6.1 infants of every 1,000 live births dying within their first year of life. More than 20,000 children do not live to see their first birthday. By this measure, American infants are nearly three times more likely to die before turning 1 than infants in Finland and Japan. America spends more on health care than any other nation, but its infant-mortality rates rank behind countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

    The real REASON, In most developed nations, premature births are recorded in the statistics as miscarriages or stillbirths even if the child takes a breath of air outside the womb. The lives that doctors in those places don’t attempt to save are never recorded as “live births.” The truth is, hospitals in the U.S. are superior at keeping very low birth-weight newborns alive for a slightly longer period of time; if only weeks or months,” the researchers conclude, “this could show up in the data as low neonatal mortality and excess post-neonatal mortality.”

    Many countries don’t try to save infants born prematurely or with severe birth defects. U.S. doctors go to extraordinary lengths to give these infants a chance at life. Such best efforts often fail, and the death becomes a misleading statistic.

  2. prk166

    Don’t forget that societally we’ve pulled our collective heads out of our hind ends when it comes to drunk driving. Surely that’s a major enough of a contributing factor to be mentioned. NOt that it’s perfect, something like 1 in 4 deaths in auto accidents involve alcohol.

    Unfortunately we seem to have replaced alcohol with electronics to suck away our attention. The human brain is single threaded. We can not do 2 things at once.

    That’s right, we can’t multi task. What are brains do is switch back and forth between each to give it a moment of attention and then back. This isn’t a problem most of the time.

    The problem is that when something keeps that attention, like scrolling through 84 podcasts trying to pick just the right one of the mood we’re in while traveling at 70MPH in traffic. I wouldn’t consider adding these touch screen entertainment systems in the car making them safer. They’re like sticking a keg in the trunk with a dispenser the driving can reach and pour.

    As for highways becoming safer, I do not understand why you seem to implicitly claim that the _ONLY_ way for highways to become more safe. Most stretches of interstate I have driven the last few years now have these safety-cable-things in the median to prevent cars from crossing over and head on collisions. In fact, on this drive somewhere in IL there was a Dodge hung up on it. In the old days they would’ve crossed over, likely resulting in a head-on collision.

    New highways don’t have to be built for them to get more safe.

  3. prk166

    Now maybe by “new” you’re including things added to existing ones. Here they’ve added an interchange on US 52 and Co Rd 9, not too far north from a fairgrounds our Anti Planner once visited. 🙂 No lanes were added to US52. They turned the intersection of it with Co Rd 9 into a grade-separated interchange ( aka a freeway interchange with exit / entrance ramps ).

    So IF Mr. O’Toole quite literally means that only a new freeway can be become safer, no, that’s not the case. I suspect though that there’s some other aspect that I’m picking up on.

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