Americans don’t wear seat belts as much and are killed more often in crashes caused by drunk drivers, making them twice as likely to die on the road, compared to people in other wealthy countries.
Those findings, released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, come days after another federal agency reported a disturbing jump in traffic fatalities in 2015.
While there has been significant progress in recent years, with the per capita death rate dropping by 31 percent from 2000 to 2013, other countries have done much better, the CDC found in its latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The average death rate went down 56 percent during that same period in 19 countries used in the comparison, including Japan, Canada and United Kingdom.
If the United States had kept pace and cut its death rate (10.3 per 100,000 people) to the average for the other countries (4.4 people per 100,000), at least 18,000 fewer people would have been killed that year, according to the CDC.
And that’s not putting U.S. performance up against individual countries known as stellar performers. “If the United States’ motor vehicle crash death rate was equivalent to the rate in Sweden (the best performing country), at least 24,000 fewer lives would have been lost,” the CDC concluded.
Ninety-six people were killed each day, or an estimated 35,200, through all of 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s a 7.7 percent jump over 2014 at a time when cars are getting safer and experts say deaths should be declining.
The CDC said proven policies and technologies would cut the death number sharply, including installing breath-testing ignition locks to stymie convicted drunk drivers.
Laws requiring seat-belt use both in the front and back of cars – and allowing tickets to be issued solely for breaking those regulations, not just as add-ons for speeding and other offenses – would also reduce the death totals, the CDC said.
Such efforts have foundered for political reasons.
The United States was tied for second place with New Zealand for the dubious distinction of most deaths connected to alcohol-impaired driving, at 31 percent. Only Canada, at 33.6 percent, was higher.
Americans wore seat belts in front seats 87 percent of the time, ranking the United States 18th of 20 countries examined.
Nearly 1 in 3 deaths involved speeding, according to Erin Sauber-Schatz, lead author of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Distracted driving of all types – from texting to taking your eyes or mind off the road for numerous other reasons – accounted for about 10 percent of fatal crashes, Sauber-Schatz said.
“It’s really important to compare us not only to our past but our potential,” said Debra Houry, an emergency room physician who is director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “I know we can do this as well, and even better” than other countries.