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Global traffic study suggests U.S lagging behind peers in road safety

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“The U.S. has nearly triple the fatalities of countries like Sweden or the Netherlands”


A new report examining the global crisis of road deaths and traffic fatalities around the world found that a more systemic approach to safety and traffic infrastructure can save lives. Despite having more resources to tackle road redesigns and reduce traffic fatalities, the United States isn’t keeping up with many of its peer nations when it comes to creating safer streets.

Sustainable and Safe: A Vision and Guidance for Zero Road Deaths, a joint report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Bank, analyzed how countries around the world approach traffic safety and roadway design. Road deaths are a global issue: 1.25 million people are killed on the world’s roads each year, making it the 10th leading cause of death worldwide, especially among vulnerable populations of the elderly, young, and poor. This tragic loss is compounded by economic costs, estimated to be $220 billion, or 5 percent of GDP, in a study of 82 countries.

While the situation in low- and middle-income countries has reached “epidemic proportions” according to report, coauthors Ben Welle and Anna Bray Sharpin, both WRI researchers, say the U.S. has a particularly poor record of improving traffic safety in relation to the resources at its disposal.

“The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, yet we have a very poor record of road safety,” says Welle. “The U.S. has nearly triple the fatalities of countries like Sweden or the Netherlands.”

Welle, Sharpin, and other researchers found that the U.S. wasn’t falling behind for lack of funding, but due to its approach. A comprehensive undertaking that looks at the entire traffic system—often called Safe System overseas and Vision Zero in the U.S.—accepts human error and designs transport systems for safer driving and protected pedestrians. It’s an approach that seen success on state and city levels in the United States, but has yet to be adopted in a more widespread manner.

Results internationally suggest the U.S. should make the shift, especially considering our terrible record on child traffic fatalities. WRI data found that of 53 countries analyzed, those adopting the Safe System approach achieved both the lowest rates of traffic deaths and the largest reductions in fatalities over 20 years. If all countries adopted a Safe System approach this could save nearly 1 million lives per year.

“Something we’re bound to hear is that improving road safety is a luxury,” Sharpin says, “that it takes away money from other parts of the transit system. It doesn’t have to mean much higher costs. Redirecting as little as 1 to 3 percent of a transit budget towards safety can make a massive impact.”

It’s about how money is spent, wisely or not, to promote safety, Welle adds. The government needs to ask: is safety an individual responsibility (hence a focus on buckling up or avoiding distracted driving), or is it something that the government should be required to provide (creating safer roads, encouraging multimodal transportation, and passing more safety regulations)?

Many of the countries that have been most successful at lowering traffic fatalities have decided that the government has an important role to play in this public health issue, and that it’s the responsibility of the system designer to keep people safe on the road.

Going back to statistics from the ’70s, the Netherlands had much the same traffic fatality rates as the United States. But their paths have diverged as the Dutch have taken a comprehensive Safe Systems approach: lowering driving speeds to reduce fatal accidents; designing safer crossings, roadways, and sidewalks to make travel safer for pedestrians and cyclists; building safer infrastructure, such as roundabouts, and funding more public transportation.

Sharpin says one of the biggest issues in the U.S., compared to other countries, is the management of speed. As vehicle speeds increase over 20 miles per hour, they rapidly become fatal. The U.S. has a strong reluctance to lower limits or add cameras to curtail speeding.


“If you go on city streets, especially in the U.S. suburbs, these roads are what people call dangerous by design,” she says. “And often, the level of forgiveness of speeding here, of allowing people to go 10 miles over the limit, can mean the difference between survival and death.”

Recent traffic stats in the U.S., however, aren’t all negative, as the cities and states enacting Vision Zero programs have seen significant improvements. After Minnesota adopted a statewide Safe System-style approach in 2003, fatalities dropped 40.5 percent over the next decade, saving 2,046 lives. The first three years of Vision Zero in New York City were “the safest three-year period in the City’s history, and the first time in over a decade that traffic fatalities fell for three consecutive years,” according to a city report. San Francisco saw record-low levels of traffic fatalities last year.

Other WRI research has shown these measures have additional upsides, in addition to saving lives. An analysis of a road calming measure in San Francisco’s Mission District, where streets were narrowed to slow down traffic, found that nearly 60 percent of neighborhood retailers reported increased spending by local people, and nearly 40 percent reported an overall increase in sales.

U.S. planners have a tool kit that’s worked in other countries, says Welle, proven solutions that can aid in the effort to reduce traffic fatalities: fixing and adding sidewalks, roundabouts, and bike lanes; initiating traffic calming measures; funding more high-quality public transport; legislating for safer vehicles; and funding faster emergency room response.

Road deaths are preventable, and the Safe System approach has demonstrated route safer travel. It’s a matter of implementation, and choosing to not be an outlier on such an important issue.

“We rightfully celebrate that there were no deaths due to commercial jet travel in the United States last year,” says Sharpin. “Just think about how many crashes there were on the road. The equivalent of airplanes full of people have been dying on U.S. roads, with not enough attention paid to the issue.”