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Why America’s roads are so much more dangerous than Europe's

A multiple-vehicle crash in Monterey Park, California.
A multiple-vehicle crash in Monterey Park, California.
Gina Ferazzi / Contributor

A jump in traffic fatalities over the past two years has brought well-deserved media attention to this tragic aspect of American life. Such deaths are up 7 percent in 2015, and 10 percent for the first six months of 2016 — a phenomenon news outlets are describing as “surprising,” “sudden,” and “unexpected,” an unpleasant departure from the historic trend toward greater safety. We are on track to kill 38,000 vehicle occupants, motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians in 2016.

The White House has issued a call to action, asking researchers to scrutinize the data on all road deaths. Officials there appealed to the public as well for ideas about combating distracted, drunken, and other dangerous driving.

Attention to traffic death is long overdue, but to focus on the recent increase means missing a much bigger point.

Even before that spike upward, per capital traffic fatalities in the US were already the highest in the industrialized world. No other developed country tolerates the level of carnage on their roads that we do. This national failure has been overlooked for far too long. Studying short-term variations in our safety record is important, but it can also distract us from investigating the forces contributing to our horrendous safety record compared to our peers.

Our research at the University of Connecticut concludes that there is nothing unexpected or surprising about the recent increase. Traffic fatality rates in the US have for decades been highly sensitive to fluctuations in gas prices and cyclical variations in macro-economic conditions like unemployment rates. When gas prices go down, people drive more and deaths go up. When they lose their jobs, they drive less and they drive more carefully — they may stay below the speed limit to avoid getting tickets — and deaths go down.

But the level of traffic deaths is also influenced by a host of other factors. Variables in our model include some that are short-term and cyclical, such as gas prices and unemployment rates, as well as others that are long-term and structural, such as polices governing seat belt use and other safety regulations.

Norman Garrick, Carol Atkinson-Palombo, Hamed Ahangari

Deaths predictably increase when gas prices (and unemployment) are low

When we plug values for gas prices and unemployment rates into our model, it almost exactly predicts the observed increase in traffic fatality rates from 2014 to 2016. What this suggests, in other words, is that the changes we are currently experiencing are the expected responses to variations in macro-economic conditions. What we’re seeing is largely a predictable response to lower gas prices and more people with jobs traveling on our roads.

If that’s the case, then one much-discussed phenomenon, distracted driving, is almost certainly not the main culprit behind the spike in recent deaths. Distracted driving did not start in 2014 and there is no evidence that it has increased markedly over the past two years.

Furthermore, American drivers are no more likely to be distracted than drivers in our peer group of developed countries, and yet in those countries traffic fatality rates have been plummeting over the past 45 years — and continue to drop. The figure below shows just how dramatic these changes have been. In 1970, the US had 52,000 fatalities compared to 102,000 in 16 other peer countries that, collectively, had a combined population 70 percent higher than that of the US. By 2012, the number of fatalities in the USA had fallen to 33,500, largely due to improvements in health care, emergency response, and vehicle technology. In comparison, the total in those same 16 countries fell to just 24,500.

In other words, since 1970 we have gone from leading the pack in traffic safety to being at the rear of that pack.

Over the past 45 years, we have virtually stood still while our peers have zoomed ahead in the realm of traffic safety. Many of these countries have taken the long view and have tackled the hard, ingrained cultural, political and engineering issues that must be addressed to bring about sustained reductions in traffic fatalities. As a result, we now have traffic fatality rates per person that are three to four times greater than those in the best-performing peer countries — including Sweden, the UK, and the Netherlands.

Much of the disparity seems to arise from how we build communities and the types of roads we design and construct. In the US, we drive more than any other developed country in the world, which goes some way toward explaining the higher traffic fatality rates. But even when we correct for vehicle miles traveled, we still have higher fatality rates. What we are learning is that the countries with the best traffic fatality records are different from the US in the following ways:

a) they live more compactly,

b) their road design favors more vulnerable users such as bikers and pedestrians, and

c) they have enacted laws and regulations that also favor these vulnerable road users.

The story of the Netherlands is revealing. In 1970, the Netherlands had a traffic fatality rate that was slightly lower than that in the US. That year, 3,200 people died on Dutch roads. Many saw this as an outrage and thousands took to the streets to protest, calling for the government to “Stop the Child Murder.” Since then, government at all levels in the Netherlands have worked diligently to improve traffic safety.

Woonerfs save lives

One result is that the Netherlands has become an innovator in developing street design that promotes safety and the creation of great places. Their so-called woonerfs — areas in which pedestrians, bikes, and cars share space, and car speed is limited more or less to walking speed — have been widely adopted in Europe and in a more piecemeal fashion in the USA. In a woonerf, drivers and pedestrians exchange hand signals or nods of the head to establish right of way rather than relying on signs and electronic signals.

The Dutch also developed the concept of “self-explaining” roads, especially for rural areas. These have design features that are consistent with the speed appropriate for the location: Curves, medians, bike lanes, and roundabouts nudge the driver toward a given speed.

In the US, in contrast, standard engineering practice calls for wide, straight streets in almost all situations. This approach prompts inappropriate speeds that we then try to correct after the fact with speed bumps, police speed traps, and a bunch of remedies that would not be needed if streets were designed appropriately in the first place.

What’s more, most communities built in the US over the past three generations have been sprawling, automobile-dependent, and disconnected. This has both increased the level of traffic within those communities and force-fed the bulk of that traffic onto the few arteries that connect one place to another. Some have taken to calling the worst of these byways “stroads” — street-road hybrids.

Stroads are dangerous because they attempt to do two incompatible things. They simultaneously attempt to facilitate high-speed travel while, at the same time, provide access to the businesses that border them.

When it comes to the relative merits of the American and European approaches, the numbers speak for themselves: 1970 was the peak year for traffic fatalities in the Netherlands. The number of fatalities dropped from 3,200 in that year to 570 in 2012. If the US had achieved the same improvements in traffic safety rates as the Netherlands during this time period 22,000 fewer Americans would have died on our roads in all of 2015.

The evidence is mounting that the long-term structural deficits in planning and engineering are a major reason why we have become such an outlier in terms of traffic fatalities. However, we are also beginning to see changes in some places in America that offer some hope.

Some isolated signs of progress in the US

Washington, DC is a case in point. Twenty years ago, DC was middle of the pack relative to other cities when it came to traffic safety. Today it is one of the safest cities in the country. One reason is because it has started to protect road users who need the most protection — users that are not traveling enclosed in two tons of steel. Learning from the Dutch, one strategy that has been employed in some parts of the city is the provision of protected on-street bike lanes — adjacent to the sidewalk and separated from moving traffic by some type of barrier.

Where these strategies have been successfully implemented — New York City, Portland, Cambridge, and Seattle, along with Washington, DC — biking has skyrocketed and traffic fatality rates have dropped at a much higher rate than in other cities. Between 2000 and 2012, there has been a four-fold increase in the number of people biking to work in DC while the traffic fatality rate fell from 9 per 100,000 to 3 per 100,000. More research is needed, but one possible explanation is that protected bike lanes reduce the amount of space dedicated to cars and ultimately slow traffic.

We must continue to tackle issues like distracted and impaired driving, but the example of DC and other cities — along with the comparative data for Europe — suggests that it is in large part structural problems that lead to carnage on our roads.

We are now beginning to see similar strategies being employed in places that once embraced stroads and sprawl. Florida, home to cities with some of the worst traffic safety records in the country — Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, say — is the poster child for this shift in attitude.

In 2015, Florida’s Department of Transportation developed a “complete streets” implementation program. Complete streets are intended to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities. With luck, this will inspire an approach to street design closer to that used by the Dutch.

This is already happening in some parts of Florida. In Wilton Manor, for instance, the city is in the process of narrowing their main street from four to two lanes, widening the sidewalks, and improving the crossings. To be sure, shifting Florida away from a car-centric worldview is akin to turning around an ocean liner. But the moves do show that some state DOTs are willing to address the arduous, long-term work that is needed to change the structural factors that make American roads so deadly.

We need a social and cultural shift in how we think about traffic fatality. This is not to say that campaigns like “don’t text and drive” are not important. But those campaigns risk serving as Band-Aids if we don’t rise to the challenge of creating a safe driving environment, rather than relying on drivers to change their behavior.

Norman Garrick is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut, Carol Atkinson-Palombo is an associate professor in the department of geography at UConn, and Hamed Ahangari is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of civil and environmental engineering. They are members of the Sustainable Cities Research Group.

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