For many people the end of the year is a time to take stock of our lives and see if we’re achieving our goals. This week, instead of answering one of your questions, I’d like to propose one of my own: How are we doing in our goal to eliminate fatal and serious injury crashes on our roads?
I will start with the good news, then the bad news, and finally, the worse news. If you call Washington home, you have a lower chance of dying in a car crash than almost every state in the nation. Washington ranks seventh of the fifty states, with a fatality rate of 7.9 deaths for every 100,000 people in the state. The biggest winner: Rhode Island at 4.3. The biggest loser: Wyoming at 24.7.
Washington also consistently ranks as one of the top states for seat belt use, with about 95 percent of drivers using their seat belts. It’s no coincidence that states with high seat belt compliance rates also have the lowest fatality rates. The data show exactly what “the man” has been saying: Seat belts save lives.
Now for the bad news. From 2014 to 2015 Washington had a 23 percent increase in fatalities on our roads. Let’s not just talk about percentages. In 2015, 568 people died on Washington roads. That’s 568 people who didn’t come home to their friends and family because of a crash. The top contributing factors to these crashes are impaired drivers, speeding and distracted driving. Also notice that all of those factors are completely preventable. In fact, 94 percent of all fatal and serious injury crashes are a result of human error.
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The final outcome for 2016 isn’t available yet, but halfway through the year we were up 10 percent compared to 2015. Fatality rates keep climbing, traffic enforcement is declining, and overall, we don’t seem to be getting any better at driving.
Now for the worse news. First of all, I’m grateful to live in this nation. There are many things we can be proud of. But traffic safety is not one of them. In 2015, 35,092 people died in car crashes in the United States. In ranking all the countries around the world by traffic fatality rates, the United States comes in 60th out of 180. We barely made it into the top third. That puts us a little worse than Azerbaijan and the Philippines, and a little better than Uzbekistan and Jamaica. There are developing countries with driving records better than ours.
Why aren’t we safer on our roads?
Lots of reasons. Compared to many countries, we have low expectations for our drivers. Our driver education programs are minimal, and once we get a license we can go 50 years or more without a retest. Think about how much the roads, the cars and the laws have changed in 50 years.
We live in a car-centric society. In many developed nations, people navigate through their cities on well-developed public transit systems. Buses, trains, subways, elevated rail – whatever the method, public transportation has a much lower fatality rate than individuals driving cars.
Our traffic laws and our road designs don’t do a good job of protecting the most vulnerable road users. Countries with the lowest fatality rates use road design and traffic laws to protect pedestrians and cyclists.
My final point isn’t based on data or laws, but an observation. It seems that part of the reason we have so many traffic fatalities is because we’ve come to accept it as an unavoidable cost of car ownership. Consider this: If we experienced 35,092 fatalities a year in air travel, that would be more than a fully loaded 747 crashing every week. How many weeks would it take before the Federal Aviation Administration grounded every plane and searched for a solution to the problem?
We don’t need to park every car until we find a solution. We already know how to prevent most of our traffic deaths: drive sober, maintain a reasonable speed and make driving our primary task instead of being distracted by the multitude of things that compete for our attention. Have a happy new year, be kind and drive wise.
Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.