Via Matt Yglesias, I came across this really neat conversation in the New York Times on the extraordinarily high number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic, cites an alarming comparison.
Changes in traffic fatalities don’t happen in lockstep across nations.
Consider Canada. Its road fatalities dropped by roughly half from 1979 to 2004: 5,933 to 2,875. Had the U.S. been able to achieve a similar reduction in a similar time period per capita, we would have seen the 51,091 fatalities in 1980 drop to roughly 25,500 in 2004. Instead, there were 42,836 people killed in 2004.
Intriguingly, traffic fatalities are heavily concentrated in rural areas.
To take just one example, even though just 17 percent of the U.S. population is labeled as rural, a majority of fatal traffic crashes occur in rural areas (for various reasons ranging from lifestyle, driving speeds, road engineering and emergency response). As the leading cause of death for people aged 1 to 34 years old in the U.S., traffic deaths represent nothing short of a public health crisis, not a collection of “accidents,” and should be treated as such.
These numbers strike me as utterly appalling. Compare them to even the highest estimates of the number of Americans who die prematurely due to lack of adequate medical insurance, and you get a sense of how strangely skewed our political debate can be. Reducing U.S. traffic fatalities to Canadian levels would be costly, but far less costly than other strategies for reducing mortality risk.