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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 10 | SPECIAL ISSUE: HIGHWAY SAFETY GETS SHORT SHRIFT | December 7, 2002 Subscribe

U.S. lags behind other countries

The generally low priority assigned to highway safety in the United States doesn't mean that no progress has been made. U.S. officials were the first in the world to begin regulating motor vehicles with meaningful safety requirements and to recognize and address the problem of roadside hazards. In a few U.S. states, including California, politicians have enacted good traffic safety laws, which are being enforced without significant public backlash.

Despite these strides, the United States has generally lagged over the past 30 years. Other countries including Canada are doing a better job of improving their highway safety pictures. An indicator involves motor vehicle death rates. Since 1975 Canada has cut its per-capita rate by two-thirds and its per vehicle rate by more than half. Meanwhile, the United States hasn't been as successful. The per-capita rate is 29 percent lower than it was in 1975, and the per-vehicle rate has been reduced by 42 percent.

The result is a turnaround. Motor vehicle death rates used to be lower in the United States than in Canada. Since 1990, U.S. rates have been higher.

Another example involves safety belt use. California and a few other states have achieved high belt use rates, but overall the United States ranks 14th among 18 developed countries in the proportion of motorists who buckle up. Only Belgium, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands have lower use rates. In contrast, the rates in Canada and a number of other countries exceed 90 percent.

Swedish officials have taken an aggressive approach, launching a plan called Vision Zero. Citing the toll of about 600 deaths and 80,000 injuries that occur annually in motor vehicle crashes, this plan "considers that the current situation can no longer be tolerated" and sets as its goal "that nobody will be killed or seriously injured as a result of a traffic accident within the road transport system."

Rhetoric aside, the plan calls for bold specifics such as redesigning roads and setting lower speed limits. As a statement of purpose, this contrasts sharply with the low priority assigned to reducing crash deaths and injuries on U.S. roads.

"The priority assigned to highway safety in the United States is likely to remain low," Williams concludes, "until the public, politicians, and key decision-makers become convinced that the prevention of crash deaths and injuries deserves priority comparable to what we assign to other leading public health problems."

Victoria shows how: Australian state was first with effective programs for drivers

Officials in Victoria and other Australian states haven't hesitated to implement effective programs aimed at improving the behavior of drivers and others on the road. In fact, Australian officials demonstrate what Ian Johnston dubs "a penchant for direct intervention to control individual behavior. Perhaps this has its roots in our origins as a penal colony."

Dr. Johnston, the former director of the Australian Road Research Board, notes that the success of the interventionist approach has "captured international attention," with Victoria in the forefront. In 1961, this state became the first jurisdiction in the world to require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. In subsequent years Victoria was first to mandate safety belt use (1970), begin widespread random breath testing for alcohol (1976),and require bicyclists to wear helmets (1990). Another "first" involved pioneering the use of cameras to identify and ticket red light runners (beginning in the early 1980s) and later speeders (1991).

These laws haven't generated significant public backlash. Enforcement officials initially believed the law that authorized widespread breath testing would create hostility toward police, but it didn't. Motorists favor this and other intervention programs aimed at drivers and others on the road.

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