U.S. Lags Behind Europe In Traffic Safety Traffic fatalities have been declining in this country, but not as fast as they have been in Europe. A new report examines the lessons the U.S. can learn from other countries in reducing fatal traffic accidents.
NPR logo

U.S. Lags Behind Europe In Traffic Safety

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131360238/131378352" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
U.S. Lags Behind Europe In Traffic Safety

U.S. Lags Behind Europe In Traffic Safety

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131360238/131378352" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You would think that safety on the roads is something that everybody could easily agree on, but a new report from the National Research Council suggests disagreement over just how much enforcement people will tolerate.

Europeans, it turns out, are willing to accept traffic safety measures that would make Americans unhappy. And that may have something to with why traffic fatalities are declining faster in Europe than they are in the United States.

NPR's Joe Palca takes a look.

JOE PALCA: The good news is that traffic fatalities have been declining in recent years in America. But - and you knew there was going to be a but -Indiana University's Clinton Oster says the reason for the decline is something few are happy about: the economy.

Professor CLINTON OSTER (Indiana University): Whenever the U.S. goes into recession, highway fatalities drop.

PALCA: Because fewer people are on the roads.�

Prof. OSTER: And then when you get the economic recovery, highway fatalities come back up. So I think that the declines for the past couple years are probably mostly recession-caused, and therefore probably mostly temporary.

PALCA: Oster is the chairman of a committee convened by the National Research Council to examine why traffic fatalities are going down faster in Europe than they are in this country. The bottom line is fairly clear.

Prof. OSTER: It's not that they have technologies that we don't have. It's that they use them more extensively and they manage their highway safety programs more intensely and better than we do.

PALCA: Take the rather low-tech solution of requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

Prof. OSTER: All the countries we looked at have mandatory helmet laws, and the trend in the U.S. has been rolling back mandatory helmet laws.

PALCA: And that trend isn't restricted to helmet laws. Other safety measures are also under assault. In Houston, Michael Kubosh led an effort in the last election to rid the city of cameras designed to catch people running lights - a successful effort.�

Mr. MICHAEL KUBOSH: The citizens believed us. And they believed it wasn't about safety. They believed it was about money, and they stood with us and they voted it.�

PALCA: Kubosh says the city just wanted the revenue from the traffic tickets they were able to write. But safety experts say traffic tickets aren't written for everybody, just people who break the law.�

Mr. ADRIAN LUND (President, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety): We've sort of lost track of the fact that the real victims of red light running aren't the red light runners. It's the people they're running into.

PALCA: Adrian Lund is president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Mr. LUND: There is a segment of the population that seems to feel that they have the right to violate speed laws and run red lights without getting caught.

PALCA: Lund says another approach to reducing deaths is frequent roadside sobriety checks. The report says such checks are common in Europe, and rules there are generally stricter about blood alcohol levels. Lund says enforcing existing laws here would help a lot.

Mr. LUND: Just doing that could probably save eight to 9,000 lives each year.

PALCA: Lund is hoping that instead of random roadside testing, the future may hold a technological fix: cars that simply can't be started by an intoxicated driver.

The report also suggests that changing the way we construct new roads in this country could also save lives. Report author Clinton Oster says we'd do well to replace intersections with roundabouts or traffic circles.

Prof. OSTER: Those have been shown both in the U.S. and elsewhere to be very effective at reducing fatalities and injuries at intersections.

PALCA: Right. Because you just - you have to slow down.

Prof. OSTER: Yeah. And the kinds of accidents you might get in a roundabout are more sort of minor collision, people going in basically the same direction. They tend not to produce injuries or fatalities.

PALCA: And if you can get people going basically in the same direction, you can get all kinds of things done.�

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of song, "Drive My Car")

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.