One glance at the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group (IRTAD) Road Safety Annual Report, which provides an overview of road safety performance for 2014 in 40 countries, caused me to do a double-take. The UK in 2014 reported 3 fatalities for every 100,000 inhabitants while the USA reported 10.2 fatalities over the same measure for the same period. My initial reaction was that I must have read the figures incorrectly but closer inspection confirmed the statistics. What possible explanation could there be for such a startling difference?
Exceeding the speed limit was noted to have been reported as a factor in 5% of all road crashes in the UK and accounted for 17% of fatalities, while in the USA speed was reported as a contributory factor in 28% of all fatal road crashes. Maybe this is not surprising when UK roads are so congested – British drivers are halted by traffic for twice as long as drivers in the US – and with speed cameras de rigeur.
Impairment through drink-driving reportedly accounted for 31% of road fatalities in the USA compared to 14% in the UK despite the 2 countries having very similar drink-driving limits in place – in fact one could argue that the USA has stricter controls regarding drinking and driving as all 50 States were reported to have adopted zero-tolerance laws that make it illegal for drivers under 21 to have any detectable alcohol in their bodies.
Further and even more startling variations exist in relation to distracted driving and seat belts.
In England and Scotland, an observational survey was reported to show that the proportion of drivers using handheld mobile phones while driving was 1.6% while in the USA it was reported that 10% of all crash fatalities were reported to have involved distracted driving and the distraction involved in 13% of those crashes was a mobile phone. In the UK it is illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone or similar device while driving. Drivers may also face prosecution if they not in proper control of their vehicle due to a distraction such as the use of a hands-free phone system. The report states that only 14 states of the USA prohibit drivers from using hand-held mobile phones while driving, although 38 states ban mobile phone use for novice drivers. Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 45 states.
The level of prescription around seat belt usage also differs significantly. In the UK seat belt use is now compulsory for occupants of all seats in a vehicle, and has been since 1991. As a child growing up in the seventies and eighties, I can still remember the advertising slogan that pre-dated mandatory use of seat belts for front seat passengers – “Clunk click every trip”. The advertising campaign, together with the use of seat belts becoming mandatory, has ensured that putting on a seat belt is one of the automatic routines car users undertake when preparing for a journey. The IRTAD report confirmed that in England and Wales, 98% of all car drivers, 96% of front-seat passengers and 87% of rear seat occupants wear seat belts. In contrast the report confirmed that in 2015 in the USA, 88.5% of front seat occupants their seatbelt. It also confirmed that seat belt use is at its highest in those States (34 of them) in which vehicle occupants can be pulled over solely for not using seatbelts. 15 States only have secondary seat belt laws i.e. drivers can be pulled over and ticketed for not wearing a seat belt only where there is another citable traffic offence (although many of these 15 States have harsher rules for younger drivers and/or passengers). New Hampshire is reported not to have any seat belt laws at all for adults. Current community level awareness campaigns in the UK continue to have an impact on road safety.
So what is the reason behind these variations in road safety policy? In June 2014 the Telegraph in the UK printed an article asking why US roads were more dangerous than European ones. The article accepted that Americans tend to drive more and further distances than European drivers, but it also suggested that in some parts of the US, road safety was given a lower priority than the rights of an individual to use a phone or not to wear a seatbelt. The article referred to an incident in Florida where one motorist, who was alleged to have been texting on his phone while behind the wheel, found his phone being seized and thrown to the ground by the angry driver of a car he had collided with causing minor damage. The reaction on social media was apparently largely supportive of the driver alleged to have been texting. As an observer, albeit one who has practiced as a claimant (plaintiff) personal injury lawyer all her professional life, I find this reaction troubling.
The IRTAD report did not identify any particular reason for the variations between the countries referred to in the report but did identify that in order to further reduce road deaths, road safety policies needed to focus on enforcement of drink-drive laws, speed limits, the wearing of seat belts and the use of motorcycle helmets.
I am as aware as any other person that statistics do need to be treated with some caution. There may well be differences in the way that the statistics in each country were collated and reported that might account for some of the variations. However, I would venture to suggest that statistical discrepancies cannot by themselves explain the very different figures that are referred to in the first paragraph of this article, and that road safety policies that may be unattractive from the civil liberties perspective could well be the way forward for cutting fatalities on US roads.