The New York Times recently reported out a story of American Exceptionalism, except this time the recognition is unwanted.
Comparing road deaths from 2017 to 2020, America saw a 5% increase. America was joined by only Switzerland (+5%) and Ireland (+3%) in increases. 27 countries reported significant decreases in similar deaths over the same time period. For example, Mexico had a 9% decrease, while Sweden, France, Spain, Turkey, Hungary, and Italy all showed a fatality decrease of over 20%.
Safety advocates and government officials lament that so many deaths are often tolerated in America as an unavoidable cost of mass mobility. But periodically, the illogic of that toll becomes clearer: Americans die in rising numbers even when they drive less. They die in rising numbers even as roads around the world grow safer.
The government estimates that in 2021 nearly 43,000 people died on American roads.. And the recent rise in fatalities has been particularly pronounced among those the government classifies as most vulnerable — cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians.
Much of the familiar explanation for America's road safety record lies with a transportation system primarily designed to move cars quickly, not to move people safely.
“Motor vehicles are first, highways are first, and everything else is an afterthought,” said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The fatality trends over the last 25 years, though, aren't simply explained by America's history of highway development or dependence on cars. In the 1990s, per capita roadway fatalities across developed countries were significantly higher than today. And they were higher in South Korea, New Zealand and Belgium than in the U.S. Then a revolution in car safety brought more seatbelt usage, standard-issue airbags and safer car frames, said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute.
Fatalities fell as a result, in the U.S. and internationally. But as cars grew safer for the people inside them, the U.S. didn't progress as other countries did to prioritizing the safety of people outside them.
What the U.S. can do to change this is obvious, advocates say: like outfitting trucks with side underride guards to prevent people from being pulled underneath, or narrowing the roads that cars share with bikes so that drivers intuit they should drive slower.
“We know what the problem is, we know what the solution is,” said Caron Whitaker, deputy executive director at the League of American Bicyclists. “We just don't have the political will to do it.”