Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all become familiar with the idea of ”turning a corner”. Now it seems that another US curve needs to be bent: that of road deaths in the US, which have risen sharply and abnormally in recent years. The low-hanging fruit when it comes to swapping may not be in the car as much as it is around it.
The number of road fatalities in the US shows a long (albeit lumpy) overall downward trend (blue bars), although the US population has grown dramatically (green line) and the number of fatalities per vehicle kilometer traveled (red line) — with except for the last few years.
Thanks in large part to in-car safety technologies such as airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control and, more recently, automatic emergency braking, the number of road deaths in the US has generally fallen sharply since 1970. 36,000 in 2019, even as the U.S. population and vehicle miles driven both increased dramatically. But 2020 and 2021 saw the biggest spike in more than 50 years to a total of nearly 43,000 a year, pushing the road fatality clock back to 2002. In short, something isn’t working as well as it did.
“We need regulations related to vehicle design and street design,” said Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a not-for-profit think tank focused on urban mobility and equity. “Those two play a very important role in the chance that people die on the street, especially pedestrians (and cyclists) who are hit by cars.”
Speed is a major factor in nearly a third of all road deaths. One solution that would put most American motorists in trouble is the increased use of still-rare automatic speed cameras that autonomously issue tickets and create an enforcement presence that no number of human officers can hope to replicate. But US drivers have been sufficiently vocal in their opposition to such enforcement technology that investigations are underway into the many cities that have removed their similar red light cameras.
Speed cameras are common in several countries outside the US, often using technology that calculates the average speed of a particular vehicle based on the time stamps as it passes two or more places on the roadway.
Safety technologies in vehicles that protect the occupants have only become more prevalent in recent years, so Freemark sees pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in car crashes as the next important area for improvement. Three-quarters of US car buyers opt for a light truck that is typically heavier and larger than the sedan or coupe they may have chosen as their previous purchase, formulating a more brutal impact with someone outside the vehicle. Far more electric cars will be sold in the future and the known weight problem could exacerbate the severity of collisions.
“The United States has chosen not to develop automotive safety standards designed to protect pedestrians, both in terms of testing and (vehicle) requirements,” Freemark said. European cars are rated for collisions with pedestrians in a collision, while American car safety ratings mainly focus on how well the car protects the people in it.
Volvo was the first to offer an under-hood airbag intended to limit a pedestrian’s injury in the event of a crash, but the technology remains quite rare. But it’s far better to design roads that better separate cars from pedestrians than to focus on reducing the degree of serious injury when they run into each other.
That difference comes into play when you compare statistics on road deaths outside the US. “Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen quite a few differences between other developed countries, such as France,” Freemark said of a comparison he focused on. He pointed to other countries’ tax regimes that discourage the purchase of large, heavy vehicles, as well as automatic speed cameras and the presence of many more roundabouts that still confuse most American drivers. Listen to Yonah Freemark’s conversation with Brian Cooley of CNET to hear what he believes could bend the curve of American road deaths, perhaps to new lows that vehicle technology itself may never reach.