Despite the human and financial toll of traffic fatalities
annually in the United States - 43,000 deaths and 2.7 million
injuries at a cost of about $230 billion - such accidents are often
viewed as an inevitable, if tragic, byproduct of driving. Now a
small but growing number of safety advocates and transportation
researchers want to change that perception, partly by borrowing
proven strategies from Europe and Australia. The goal, they say, is
to reduce the number of traffic deaths - not by improving cars to
limit the severity of crashes, but by targeting human behaviors that
trigger collisions in the first place.
That strategy has worked well in the Netherlands, where over the
past three decades, the annual number of traffic fatalities has
declined by 75 percent from 3,200 to 800. Today, that country has
one of the lowest per capita traffic fatality rates in the world.
"The perspective in our society is that quite some proportion of
all car crashes are preventable," says Fred Wegman, director of the
Netherlands Institute for Road Safety Research, "and there is no
need to accept the death toll."
Mr. Wegman visited Washington, D.C., last month for the annual
meeting of the Transportation Research Board as an independent
adviser to the US government. Improving traffic safety is not easy,
he says. "You are famously dependent on how the population perceives
the problem, and whether you can interest politicians to take
Some methods used by the Netherlands to reduce road fatalities
include changing road design to limit vehicle speeds, expanding
automated enforcement and sobriety testing, and prohibiting the use
of electronic devices while driving.
"Since the 1960s, safety campaigns in this country have focused
predominantly on crash mitigation, such as seat belts and air bags,"
says Bob Chauncey, director of a new "traffic justice" initiative
for the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, a nonprofit group
in Bethesda, Md. "With the exception of MADD [Mothers Against Drunk
Driving], we don't look at the root cause of the crash."
The US approach to road safety is limited in scope, says David
Willis, a senior research scientist at the Texas Transportation
Institute in College Station. Forty percent of all fatal crashes in
the United States are due to speeding, he says. "But unlike almost
every other civilized society in the world, we don't focus on driver
behavior - we focus on vehicle design."
In the Netherlands, says Mr. Wegman, speed limits are very low:
25 m.p.h. in the city, and 60 m.p.h. on the freeway. Dutch roads are
also designed to encourage safe driving. Traffic-calming strategies
include extensive bicycle and pedestrian facilities, narrow streets
with medians, and roundabouts instead of intersections with traffic