Thirty years ago, the United States and other developed countries such as Australia, Canada and France had similar traffic death rates of about 25 per 100,000 persons. That toll has been reduced over time thanks to safer cars, safer roads and other factors, but by a significantly lesser margin in our country.
A new study co-authored by researchers at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control attributes the difference to tougher traffic safety laws abroad, especially regarding seat belts, child restraints, drunken driving and cycle helmets. Minnesota and the United States as a whole have been slow or still unwilling to adopt such measures, which are common and effective elsewhere.
Although traffic fatality rates in the United States have fallen 35 percent since the 1980s, they are double those in comparable developed nations. U.S. crash costs, borne mostly by society as a whole, also far exceed those in other countries – 2 to 2.3 percent of gross national product here, compared with 0.5 percent in Great Britain and 0.9 percent in Sweden.
That translates to real money. The new study found a direct medical and lost productivity cost of $99 billion in 2005 due to 3.7 million deaths and injuries from U.S. crashes – a per driver “lax road rules tax” of nearly $500. Add in indirect costs such as higher insurance premiums, travel delays and increased government expenses and the annual financial toll reaches $230 billion, three-quarters of it not paid by the crashing motorists.
Conservatives often warn of “creeping socialism” in the United States while upholding the insidious kind that already exists – maximizing the liberty to take foolish risks on public roads while socializing their inevitable costs. This kind of lax regulation and enforcement was the recipe for the nation’s economic meltdown, and it’s just as stupid as conservative transportation policy. If we are ever to seriously address a national traffic toll that kills nearly the same number of people as the 9/11 massacre every month, our traffic laws and enforcement has to get tougher.