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Why American roads have become so dangerous and what to do about it

We’ve all become familiar with the idea of ​​”bending a curve” thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. It now seems that another American curve needs to be bent: that of road deaths in the United States, which have increased sharply and abnormally over the past two years. The fruit at hand when it comes to changing that might not be so much in the car as around it.

U.S. road deaths have followed a long, general (albeit lumpy) downward trend (blue bars) even though the U.S. population has increased dramatically (green line) and the number of fatalities per vehicle- kilometer decreased (red line) – except for the last two years.

Brian Cooley/CNET

Thanks in large part to in-vehicle safety technologies such as airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control and, more recently, automatic emergency braking, road deaths in the United States have generally seen a long decline. since 1970. The 52,000 such deaths recorded 52 years ago rose to 36,000 in 2019 even as the U.S. population and vehicle miles 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, bringing the number of road deaths back to 2002. In short, something isn’t working as well as He did it.

“We need regulations related to vehicle design and street design,” says Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on urban mobility and equity. “These two play a very important role in the likelihood of people being killed on the streets, especially pedestrians (and cyclists) who are hit by cars.”

Speed ​​is a major factor in almost a third of all road deaths. The increased use of still-rare automatic speed cameras that autonomously issue tickets and create a law enforcement presence that no human agent can hope to replicate is a solution that would likely raise the ire of most American drivers. But American drivers have been vocal enough in their opposition to such law enforcement technology that there are studies of the many cities that have removed their similar red-light cameras.

Why American roads have become so dangerous and what to do about it

Speed ​​cameras are common in several countries outside the United States, often using technology that calculates the average speed of a given vehicle based on timestamps as it passes two or more places on the roadway.

In-vehicle safety technologies that protect occupants have only become more prevalent in the past two years, which is why Freemark sees pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in collisions with cars as the next key area for improvement. Three-quarters of U.S. auto buyers choose a light truck that’s typically heavier and larger than the sedan or coupe they may have chosen as a previous purchase, a formula for a more brutal impact with someone outside the vehicle. In the future, many more electric cars will be sold and their well-known weight problem could aggravate 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 (vehicular) requirements,” Freemark says. European cars are rated on pedestrian impact in a collision, while American car safety ratings focus primarily on how well the car protects those inside.

Why American roads have become so dangerous and what to do about it

Volvo was the first to offer an airbag under the hood intended to limit the injuries of a pedestrian in the event of an impact, but the technology remains quite rare. But designing roads that better separate cars from pedestrians is far better than focusing on mitigating the degree of serious injury when they meet.

Volvo cars

This difference shows up when you compare statistics for road deaths outside of the United States. “Over the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen some divergence between other developed countries, like France,” Freemark said of a comparison he focuses on. He noted tax regimes in other countries that discourage the purchase of large heavy vehicles as well as speed cameras and the presence of many more roundabouts that still confuse most American drivers. Listen to Yonah Freemark’s conversation with CNET’s Brian Cooley to hear what he thinks could bend the curve of deaths on American roads, perhaps to new lows that automotive technology itself may never offer.


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