USA miles behind on road safety

The USA is increasingly an anomaly when it comes to road safety. The country that brought us the first New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) in 1983 has stagnated since in safety terms as other countries have, quite literally, left it for dead.

Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that an estimated 9,560 people died on US roads in the first quarter of 2022. This is an increase of 7% on a year ago and the highest first-quarter total since 2002.

Safety levels vary by State, but in Mississippi, the fatality rate is 25.4 per 100,000 people. This is the same as Somalia and slightly worse than Kazakhstan (24.2). The ‘Wild West’ states of Montana and Wyoming, plus most of the ‘Deep South’ region, also post high fatality rates

Yet when viewed from the outside, it looks as if the US is doing all the right things. There are speeding and drink-driving campaigns and there are grants available to individual states for a ‘broad array of programs and countermeasures’. So, what is going wrong? 

Why has the USA fallen behind?

Writer and visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School David Zipper says that “the closer you look, the clearer it becomes that the US traffic safety crisis is not a reflection of geography or culture. It’s the result of policy decisions that elevated fast car travel and automaker profits over roadway safety. Other countries made different choices and they’ve saved lives as a result.” 

It’s the result of policy decisions that elevated fast car travel and automaker profits over roadway safety.

He points to the lack of car-free zones that you might find in European cities. Also, despite having given the world NCAP crash ratings, the US has not yet added pedestrian-safety tests to its inventory. The make-up of vehicles in the US is also dominated by SUVs and pick-up trucks, whose weight and height put pedestrians at a disadvantage.

What’s more, comparatively low fuel taxes encourage driving, as does the lack of coherent and widespread public transport system. As Zimmer says: “Many of the best solutions are quite simple. Build slower streets. Penalise reckless drivers quickly and reliably. Use regulations and taxes – on vehicle weight as well as fuel – to nudge the car industry toward smaller, safer models.

State-level legislation can lead to lower levels of regulation that in other countries. When it comes to cell phone use, Montana stands out by having no restrictions whatsoever, while Missouri merely limits a texting ban to drivers aged 21 and under. States can also be reluctant to introduce automatic traffic cameras to deter speeding and running red lights. Only eight states have passed laws that prohibit both.

A role for employers

Dr Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator, says that the crisis on his country’s roads is “urgent and preventable”. He promises that the NHTSA will “redouble its safety efforts”. 

Cliff says: “We need everyone – state and local governments, safety advocates, automakers, and drivers – to join us. All of our lives depend on it.” 

This puts the ball firmly into employers’ courts. A crisis like this means there’s a clear opportunity for organisations in terms of coaching and monitoring. Cell phone use, for example, is easy to track with modern technology. As well as the social welfare benefits, there is a clear business case for risk management, as although government intervention can be loose, employer liability in the civil courts can be huge.

You may not be able to fix infrastructure issues, but assessing driving patterns is a step in the right direction, along with education, encouragement and ensuring schedules don’t encourage the wrong behaviours behind the wheel. 

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