What the U.S. CDC Says about Road and Highway Crash Deaths in America

In July 2016 — with a very welcome degree of frankness and honesty that I have not seen from other top-level road safety bodies in the USA — the Center for Disease Control [CDC] wrote: “…more than 32,000 people are killed and 2 million are injured each year from motor vehicle crashes. In 2013, the US crash death rate was more than twice the average of other high-income countries… Motor vehicle crash deaths in the US are still too high.  There were more than 32,000 crash deaths in the US in 2013…” [Source]

However, since the figure of 32,719 deaths for 2013 became known, the number of road deaths has catapulted upwards and the National Safety Council [NSC] now estimates that 40,200 people were killed on America’s roads in 2016, which will represent a frankly catastrophic, 23 percent increase in just three years.

Despite the CDC’s refreshing frankness, however, there was still one aspect of their associated document which, from any layman reader’s perspective, would appear to significantly play-down the scale of the situation, and this is implied in the graphic shown below.

It is misleading that this graphic shows the ‘per capita’ road death rates for just ten ‘high-income’ countries when in fact in 2013 the USA was in 30th position out of the 32 OECD nations that were listed in that year’s data in the 2015 IRTAD report.

 To be fair, the two other illustrations on the same page did carry explanatory notes regarding the overall numbers of countries to which they referred, which is infinitely preferable.  See page 3 of the July 2016 edition of VitalSigns.

It can also be said that while the CDC statement about “the US crash death rate [being] more than twice the average of other high-income countries,” it can be argued that it is even more valid and revealing to state that the USA rate of road deaths is more than four-times worse than the per-capita rates in the leading nations, and three-times worse in the per-vehicles rate, and that if the USA made itself able to match those leading nations, between 20,000 and 25,000 American lives would be saved, each and every year.

The other topic that needs to be mentioned while we are on this subject is that while the USA is justifiably focusing on the biggest known causes of road deaths, it appears to be stunningly intransigent regarding other significant factors.  It can be argued that this is logical and that the specific things which cause most deaths — such as excessive speed, drunk driving, and failing to wear seat belts — should be the priority.  This may well be true insofar as the priority aspect, but given just how far the USA lags behind so many other countries and the fact that America’s situation is currently worsening dramatically by the year, it must now be time to widen the remit regarding which international best-practices should be emulated, over and above the five biggest killers — a currently rather narrow focus which clearly is not working anywhere near well-enough.





Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at: http://www.advanceddrivers.com/ceochief-instructors-resumecvbio/

6 thoughts on “What the U.S. CDC Says about Road and Highway Crash Deaths in America”

  1. From memory the most interesting fact was the rate of reduction in road deaths. Spain was making fantastic leaps in death reduction.. I don’t know why.. perhaps worth looking at how they achieved their aims and maintained them.. or just hire some Spanish road safety engineers.

    1. Perfectly true regarding the ‘how’ aspect, Andrew, although I would suggest that experts from all of the disciplines in all of the leading nations — especially the long-term leaders — should be involved. 🙂 Thank you for your reply.

  2. This compares deaths per 100,000 people which is not a proper comparison for USA. The proper comparison is deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Some other countries would still be better than the USA – but by smaller margins, and with obvious differences in the sizes of the countries and their more-dense populations per square mile or kilometer. For example, England, Scotland and Wales have a population of about 63 million people – but the greater London area has about 13 million of them or about 20% that live in a relatively small area with good public transit.

    Huge percentages of the USA have far smaller population densities with far larger needs to drive greater distances for the normal activities of live.

    Using rates per 100,000 populations is simply a bad comparison.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

    1. James, firstly the ‘per capita’ rate which measures deaths against each country’s population is the most widely-used and most widely accepted metric in international road safety, and if – as in this case – a body like the CDC is using it (as do NHTSA, the NCSA and the NTSB) then with respect that should be more than good enough for all of us.

      No single metric can give the full picture though, because every country is different in some way or another, not just the USA. Indeed, both Australia and Canada – which I think you will agree are bound to have exactly the same issue of huge size and widely-spread clusters of population – have ‘per capita’ death rates around half that found in America, which would suggest that your claim is not scientifically sound.

      As for measuring deaths for every 100 million miles driven, I cannot know whether you are aware that only the USA uses this particular distance. Every other country that I know of which uses a ‘per distance’ measure uses 1 billion vehicle kilometres as the distance, but the USA chooses to be the odd-one-out. Might this be because the figures in the actual rates sound so tiny when measured in this manner? They certainly do imply a very small problem even though that is not the actual case.

      Anyway, the most recent multi-national figures for per-distance rates are summarized here:

      Road deaths per billion vehicle-kilometres (the USA alone uses 100 million miles)
      • Countries providing data: 21
      • America’s ranking in list: 18th
      • Best rates: 3.4 (Sweden & Norway) — 3.6 (UK & Denmark)
      • USA Rate: 6.7
      • Worst rates: 7.1 (Belgium & New Zealand) — 15.5 (Korea)

      So I would suggest that whatever one’s ‘opinion’ of the ‘per capita’ rate, it is clear that the USA still compares very poorly indeed with the vast majority of other developed nations.

      The above chart of figures is from ‘USA Performance in Multi-National Road-Death Rates’ on this website. (Post that title, without the quotation marks, into the search box on any page if you wish to view the full article.)

      A new article about the ‘per distance’ rate will be posted on this website within the next few days.

  3. Eddie, I find the response you gave stating “No single metric can give the full picture” one to latch on to. But why we seem accept the statistics is beyond me. Some accept fatals happen and say ‘there will always be deaths on the road’ but there does not have to be.
    The aim must surely be to go for zero deaths. If we do not set a target we will continue to accept deaths on the road. I worked with colleagues from Australia, Sweden, the USA and the UK on a UN project in Kuwait to bring home the message that they can reduce their fatalities. We were all on the same page that deaths on the road can be stopped with the correct application of thinking in Education, Engineering and Enforcement.
    The USA seems to be behind but as you say each country has differences. We can however reduce deaths significantly and should start today! Do not hold meetings but take actions.

    1. I agree, Les; setting demanding targets is extremely important. To quote the well-known old saying, it is far better to have a tough target and not quite make it than it is to have an easy target and hit it. By the same token, I also believe that for countries that are currently doing poorly in road safety, in terms of death rates, to set themselves – for example – “Target Zero by 2025” is very unrealistic and therefore likely to end in grave disappointment and perhaps public disillusionment, which I believe would be a bad thing. For one example alone, Educating road users to the extent that the driving safety culture in a country improves significantly would appear from leading countries’ experience to be something that can take decades, not a mere handful of years. Similarly for safer road design and construction: for new projects, no problem but replacing all the existing, poorly-built sections of roads, footways, crossing facilities, etc., is hardly likely to happen in just a few short years.

      As for “us” — by which I assume you mean the public in general — accepting high numbers of deaths as shown in statistics, then if ever there were a classic example of any nation’s traffic safety culture not being well-enough developed, this is surely it.

      Your final point is another good one (about taking actions), however my own feelings are right in the middle of this one. Firstly, if we do not use empirically-proven methods but instead use what we as individuals or within only our own relevant disciplines (the Three E’s) believe to be best then there is a serious risk of time, money and lives being wasted. I am a great believer in a multi-disciplinary, research-based approach in every appropriate scenario. But — and this is a ‘big but’ — academics have been shown not to be very good at communicating with the front-line workers, even though they mau be brilliant at communicating with their fellow academics. So I would argue that we definitely do need meetings, seminars, etc., but ones where academics specifically communicate appropriately and where front-line workers get engaged in the process. The basic three E’s can’t work well without the crucial addition of Evaluation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.