By Derek Thompson, February 18, 2014
Driving a car is safer than ever for the simple reason that cars are
safer than ever—thanks to features like seat belts, air bags, and electronic stability control. That's one reason why deaths per miles driven have plummeted around the developed world in the five decades since Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed. In
fact, the U.S. used to be the safest country for drivers among all OECD
countries in the early 1970s. By the middle of the last decade, the
rest of the world had caught up.
This week, a new study (pdf)
from the Transportation Research Initiative at the University of
Michigan looks at global driving fatalities with up-to-date World Heath
Organization data. Around the world, deaths in a fatal car crashes are
1/6th as likely as dying from a common health problem, like heart
disease. In the U.S., where road crashes account for just 2 percent of
deaths, individuals are 13 times more likely to die from cancer.
Here is the map of driving fatality rates per capita, with the most
deadly countries (led by Namibia) in red and the safest countries (led
by the Maldives) in green. The world average is 18 fatalities from a car
accident per 100,000 individuals. The U.S. is just under that figure—at
14, compared to Australia (7) and the UK (5).
The study goes on to map fatality rates from cancer, which shows an
opposite picture, with the lowest rates in Africa and the highest rates
in Europe. In fact, 24 of the 25 countries for with the highest per
capita cancer fatalities are in Europe. The ten nations with the highest
rates are Hungary, Croatia, Denmark, Slovenia, Italy, San Marino,
Japan, Latvia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic.
This isn't a morbid point so much as a truism: The data of death is
really more like a picture of the way we live. It is lower-income and
developing countries where auto fatalities post a sizable threat to
individuals, compared to heart disease and cancer, whose risks rise with
old age and obesity (both hallmarks of richer nations). In 21 African
countries, from Namibia to Tanzania, auto fatalities account for at
least 50 percent of cancer deaths. In the OECD, the U.S and South Korea
are, relatively, the most dangerous countries for drivers, and cancer
deaths outnumber car fatalities by at least 10-to-1.