Drastic increase in the number of traffic fatalities in the USA
Let’s return to the topic of accidents in general. The picture in the USA is very different to that in the EU. In the USA, according to information provided by the National Safety Council (NSC), the number of traffic fatalities increased to over 40,000 in 2016. This equates to an increase of 15% compared with 2015, when just under 35,100 traffic fatalities were recorded. This development is even more dramatic given that the USA already recorded a 7.2% increase from 2014 to 2015. This means that within two years, the country has seen the biggest increase for over 50 years. In view of the increase in vehicle safety thanks to the large range of assistance systems available and the hundreds of millions of US dollars that have been invested in campaigns against speeding, alcohol and driver distraction, many road safety experts are at a loss to explain this trend.
As well as drunk-driving, drivers being distracted by their smartphone seems to be an especially widespread problem in the USA. As recently as the end of March 2017, 13 people lost their lives in a traffic accident in Texas because the pickup driver who caused the accident had been sending texts while driving. The problem is confirmed by a recent study conducted by Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which found that in 52% of journeys that ended in an accident, a smartphone was being used. According to an analysis of telephone data, 20% of those involved in an accident used their smartphone for over two minutes on average during the journey up to the time the accident occurred. In 30% of cases, the cellphone was used at speeds of over 90 km/h.
The fact that safety belts are offen not worn in the USA despite the average usage rate having now reached over 90% could also be partly responsible for the comparatively high number of traffic fatalities. In 2015, for instance, 22,441 car occupants were killed in traffic accidents, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This is an increase of 6.6% compared with the previous year. A huge 48% of those people killed – that is, around 10,770 – were not wearing a safety belt. In the two years previous, 49% of car occupants killed were not wearing a safety belt – with this figure as high as 52% in 2012. In some US states such as Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming, the percentage of car occupants killed in a traffic accident who were not wearing a safety belt climbs to 70% or even higher.
The importance of wearing the belt for safety reasons has been clearly proven time and again through countless international studies. Rune Elvik and his colleagues at the Institute of Transport Economics in Oslo, for instance, have proven that wearing a safety belt in the front of a car reduces the risk of fatal injuries by 45–50% and the risk of minor and severe injuries by 20% and 45% respectively. When passengers in the back of the car wear a safety belt, the risk of suffering fatal and severe injuries is cut by 25% and the risk of minor injuries is cut by up to 75%. Passengers in the back seats who do not wear a safety belt are not just putting their own lives at risk in the event of an accident – the collision can cause these passengers to be thrown forward and collide with the driver or the passenger in the front or push their seat backs forward, which can result in additional injuries to the chest and pelvic area of the front passengers in particular.
More stringent controls with corresponding fines therefore seem to be urgently required. Currently, primary belt laws allow police to issue a fine to drivers alone if they are not wearing a safety belt in 34 US states. In the remaining states, only secondary belt laws are in force. This means that police may issue a ticket only if the road user has committed another infraction. Not wearing a safety belt is in itself not reason enough for a fine. And what's more, even today there is no legal requirement for anyone over 18 to wear a safety belt in New Hampshire, the only US state where this is the case.