Recently, I wrote about how Norway, the ice palace that served as the geographic inspiration for Frozen (yes, really), was on the verge of completing their first year since the introduction of the automobile without a single child fatality. That’s right–not a single child under 10 had died a traffic-related death in Norway in 2015 as of early December (3 under 15 would eventually die). This is admirable, and shows just how effective a nationwide effort to practice extended rear-facing can be. It also shows how far we have to go as a nation in the US before we reach the point where virtually no children die due to auto traffic.
That said, I got to wondering: if the roads were that safe for children in Norway, could they also be safer for adults?
The answer is…yes!
It’s safer to be a driver or passenger in Norway than in the US
Per the article in The Local Norway, 113 Norwegians had died on the roadways as of November 2015, making this the safest year so far. In comparison, last year, 147 had died. Let’s use last year’s number and compare it to the 2013 (the most recent available) death toll in the United States: 32,719.
In 2014, there were 5.156 million Norwegians and 147 road deaths. In other words, there were 28.5 road fatalities per million Norwegians, or 2.85 road fatalities per 100,000.
In 2013, there were 316.5 million Americans and 32,719 road deaths in 2013. This figures out to 103.4 road fatalities per million Americans, or 10.34 road fatalities per 100,000.
The ratio of US road deaths to Norwegian road deaths last year, then, was 3.6. In other words, you were almost 4 times more likely to die by auto traffic as an American than a Norwegian.
To put it another way, if our death rate had been as low as Norway’s, even when scaled up to our much larger population, we would only have lost around 9,092 men, women, and children instead of 32,719. Close to 24,000 lives could have been saved.
Why are Norwegian drivers so much less likely to die than American drivers?
Let’s see what Jan Johansen, the director of Trygg Trafikk (TT), the Norwegian Council for Road Safety, had to say:
“Norwegians have become much better in traffic. People have better attitudes, we have gotten better roads and safer vehicles than we had ten to 15 years ago.”
So drivers in Norway are presumably safer, less aggressive ones. The infrastructure has been improved, in terms of road safety, and the vehicles have been safer.
None of this is magic. We could do all of this here.
How to reduce driver deaths in the US compared to Norway
Regarding the driver component, I’ve written before about how a full 50% of car crash deaths are due to single vehicle crashes–the kind where a driver veers off the road and rolls over or crashes into a tree. Those can be prevented, by far and large, simply by driving at or *below* the speed limit, as well as by driving sober, since both speeding and alcohol are implicated in 1/3rd of vehicular fatalities every single year in the United States.
Of course, additional factors like driving with head lights, driving during the day time, and driving as little as possible also make a significant difference. Norwegians, for example, drive on average 9,300 miles a year, compared to approximately 13,500 miles a year in the US. Since every mile increases your exposure to unsafe drivers, fatigue, poor weather, or other factors beyond your control, no matter how safe of a vehicle you drive or how safe of a driver you are, the less time you spend in a vehicle, the less likely you are to die while driving (or being a passenger).
Regarding infrastructure, simply installing dividers on every road with 40+ mph traffic would go a long way toward reducing highway fatalities, as would installing speed and traffic cameras everywhere. If you aren’t speeding, you’re much less likely to crash; it’s that simple. And if there’s separation on high speed roadways, you’re much less likely to kill someone by crossing lanes or be killed by someone else who crossed into your lane. I’ve written about so many lane-crossing fatal collisions in the US that could have been prevented by simple barricades. There are no need for so many of the deaths on our roads.
Regarding vehicle safety, outfitting every vehicle on the road with ESC, side impact airbags, and ensuring they all had good frontal and side scores would do a great deal toward making vehicles safer. However, another crucial step would be to reduce the weight discrepancies on our roads and reduce the overall weights of road vehicles. Small cars are safer for everyone.
There’s no reason for the average driver to have access to a 5,000 pound vehicle (e.g., a large pickup truck) for commuting while other commuters are driving 2,500 pound vehicles (e.g., a subcompact car). In the US, cheap fuel, a lack of taxes based on vehicle weights, mileage, and emissions, and limitless availability of credit results in a vehicular arms race in every city and on every highway throughout the country, where people buy large vehicles because they’re afraid of being left out in the cold with small ones, or simply because they enjoy being able to be in bigger vehicles. It appeals to our lower, primitive brains, but it’s not the direction we need to head in if we’re truly interested in building a safer society.
And no, the solution isn’t to get everyone in 5,000 pound vehicles, because a.) that negates the advantages of heavier vehicles, and b.) that makes life exponentially more difficult (i.e., shorter) for people who will *never* have vehicular protection, such as children, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. And no matter what we drive, at some point during the day, every single person in this country who uses a vehicle is a pedestrian, whether through walking or through wheel-chairs. And we all deserve to live without the fear of being run over by giant vehicles.
Does this mean there’s nothing left to be done in Norway for road safety?
However, just because things are much safer in Norway, road-wise, than they are in the US, doesn’t mean Norwegians think things are good enough:
“I would also point out that there is no reason to jump for joy. So far this year, 113 people have been killed. That is 113 too many,” Johansen told Dagbladet.
He’s right; there’s still much more to be done. There’s no reason for any road deaths in any country. But at 113, they’re a lot closer to zero than we are.
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