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Why U.S. Car Accident Death Rate Exceeds Europe’s

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Cars are much safer than they used to be. They have air bags, crumple zones, anti-lock brakes and seat belts. Despite this, death rates the United States because of car accidents are far higher than in the rest of the developed world. What’s going on? A recent article in the Economist provides some answers.

In 2013, one in 100 licensed drivers was injured in the U.S. For every billion miles driven, 11 people are killed. These are averages, and many states are as safe as European countries when it comes to driving. Some of the most densely populated states – New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts – have low accident and death rates. In sparsely populated states like Wyoming, the traffic accident rate exceeds that of all sub-Saharan Africa. Granted, there are fewer vehicles in Africa, but how can one U.S. state exceed the accident rate on most of one continent?

According to the Wyoming Highway Patrol, one reason is that people refuse to wear seat belts. In parts of the U.S. where devotion to ideals of personal freedom remains high, such as Wyoming and Texas, wearing a seat belt is akin to letting the government dictate behavior. In many states, driving while intoxicated is viewed as a youthful indiscretion or something that everyone does. In other states, the law actually encourages drinking and driving. In Louisiana, for example, drivers can pull into drive-through daiquiri stores. If that is not an incentive to drive drunk, what is?

In most European countries, there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving at any level. Even a .01 blood alcohol content (BAC) can result in an arrest. Compare this with the .08 BAC threshold in the United States, below which there is seldom any legal consequence for drinking and driving.

Another type of state law, this one regarding the use of motorcycle helmets, also contributes to high death rates in the U.S. Thirty-one states do not require adult bikers to wear helmets, including Texas. As a result, the number of motorcyclists who die each year has more than doubled since the late 1990s.

The biggest difference between the U.S. and other first-world countries, according to some experts, is that Sun Belt cities such as Houston, Tampa and Atlanta have many roadways designed like freeways – multilane roads with high speeds that still have crosswalks, stop signs and traffic lights like any other city. However, combining highway speeds with city traffic has proven fatal in many places and contributes to the high rate of traffic fatalities in the United States.

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