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Status Report, Vol. 46, No. 7 | August 18, 2011 Subscribe

U.S. trails other wealthy nations on road safety gains

The United States could learn a lot from other countries when it comes to reducing deaths and injuries on the roads, a report from the Transportation Research Board asserts.

Crash deaths have fallen to their lowest levels on record, but other high-income countries now have lower fatality rates per vehicle mile traveled. Moreover, deaths in most other high-income countries are dropping much faster than in the U.S.

Better enforcement of speed limits and alcohol-impaired driving laws are among the reasons countries such as Australia, France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have been so successful in reducing highway fatalities, the authors write. Roadway design measures such as roundabouts also have helped. More broadly, the report credits good management of safety programs and political support for their goals.

"The lack of progress in reducing the highway casualty toll might suggest that Americans have resigned themselves to this burden of deaths and injuries as the inevitable consequence of the mobility provided by the road system," the authors note. "In other countries, public officials responsible for the roads have declared that this human and economic cost is neither inevitable nor acceptable and have undertaken rigorous and innovative interventions to reduce crashes and casualties."

The report notes some differences between the U.S. and other countries that make comparisons difficult. For example, much of Europe is more urbanized than the U.S., and fatal crashes are more common on rural roads. Another difference is the large number of agencies — federal, state, and local — involved in road safety in the U.S. Other countries have just one central road safety agency. For instance, France has thousands of speed cameras, and they are all part of a single national network (see Status Report special issue: speed, Jan. 31, 2008). Nevertheless, the report identifies several safety measures in the other countries that are probably having an impact.

Some of them are pretty basic. The report notes that laws in nearly every European country, Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand require motorcyclists to wear helmets. In the U.S., however, 30 states lack helmet laws that cover all riders. Many countries also boast higher rates of safety belt use than the U.S.

When it comes to alcohol-impaired driving, frequent roadside sobriety testing is the norm in many other countries. A lower illegal blood alcohol concentration threshold also may play a role: The threshold in Australia, Canada, Japan, and most European Union member nations is at or below 0.05 percent, compared with 0.08 percent in the U.S.

Other countries are more aggressive on the problem of speed. Speed limits are better enforced, often through the use of speed cameras. This enforcement is well publicized, long term, and has the support of elected officials.

"No U.S. speed management program today is comparable in scale, visibility, and political commitment to the most ambitious programs in other countries," the authors write.

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