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.