At first glance, the United States traffic fatality rate – 7 deaths per every billion miles traveled – may seem to indicate that the nation’s roadways are fairly safe. But numbers can be deceiving.
Among a handful of comparable industrialized countries, the U.S. now has the highest traffic fatality rate – and has made the least progress since 1990 in reducing traffic fatalities, according to The New York Times.
France, which in 1990 had the highest traffic fatality rate (25.7 per billion road miles traveled), showed the most improvement; by 2015, the country had decreased crash deaths to 5.9 per billion road miles traveled. In 1990, the U.S. crash fatality rate was better than that of France, Israel, Canada, Australia, and Germany, and ranked just slightly behind the United Kingdom and Sweden. But since then, all of those countries have surpassed the U.S., which has a traffic fatality rate more than double that of Sweden and about 40 percent higher than that of Australia and Canada.
So what explains the disproportionately high rate of traffic fatalities in the U.S.? There may be no single answer, but at least one researcher has suggested that policymakers aren’t doing enough to prevent roadway fatalities.
Room for Improvement
Researcher Leonard Evans published a study in the American Journal of Public Health, in which he had reviewed traffic fatality rates for 26 countries, including the U.S. He found the other 25 countries had a traffic fatality rate that declined more rapidly than the U.S. fatality rate over time.
In discussing the study, Evans called U.S. safety policy a “public health catastrophe.” He wrote, “The failure of the United States in traffic safety is of near incomprehensible magnitude.” If the U.S. simply adopted some of the roadway changes other countries have made, Evans said, traffic fatalities would decrease by nearly 20,000 per year.
Sweden used an approach called Vision Zero – a mixture of public outreach, enforcement, roadway modifications, and public policy changes, guided by traffic safety research – to reduce the traffic fatality rate in Stockholm by 45 percent in 15 years.
Austin rolled out its own version of Vision Zero in 2016; and in 2017, it appeared that some Vision Zero infrastructure improvements were making a difference. At the intersection of Interstate 25 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, crashes dropped by 61 percent, compared to the previous year.
Of course, major infrastructure changes cost money, and motorists aren’t always pleased with having to adjust to those changes. Even when residents would, in theory, like to live in a safer city, they may be unwilling to accept the tax increases that come with funding major infrastructure projects.
In the fall of 2018, Austin voters will decide whether to approve a bond that would cover Vision Zero projects and other city needs. That bond could be anywhere from $325 million (which wouldn’t require a tax hike) to $825 million, which would require a tax increase of 2 cents on the dollar. Public outreach campaigns between now and voting day could influence whether Austin residents are willing to a shoulder a tax hike in exchange for safer streets.