Motor Vehicle Crashes Remain Leading Cause of Death in US, Serious Public Health Concern

The analysis found that if motor vehicle crashes in the United States had declined at the average rate of other countries in the survey, 18,000 lives would have been saved over the study period.

Motor vehicle crashes remain a leading cause of death in the United States, and a recent study published by the CDC discovered that seat belt use, speeding, and alcohol use are just some of the factors to blame. However, compared with other countries around the globe, the United States doesn’t quite fare well.

The CDC report examined data from the United States and 19 other countries, including 14 countries in Europe, 2 in Asia, 2 in Oceania, and 2 in the Americas (including the United States). To be eligible for study participation, the country must have membership to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, meet the World Bank’s definition for high income, and have a population of more than 1 million people. The data was collected from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) most recent Global Status Report on Road Safety.

While motor vehicle crashes have declined over the years, this remains a serious public health concern, resulting in more than 32,000 deaths and 2 million nonfatal injuries each year. In analyzing data from the years 2000 and 2013, researchers found that the US rate of motor vehicle crashes decreased 31%, from 14.9 to 10.3 deaths per 100,000 population. Though in comparison to the 19 other countries, the United States ranked the lowest for percentage decrease. The average declining death rate among the countries was 56%, and all 19 countries had a higher percentage drop in the motor vehicle death toll, ranging from Finland’s 38.3% decrease to Spain’s 78.1% decrease during the 2000 and 2013 study years.

If the United States had matched the average declining death rate among the 19 countries, or reached a 56% decrease in the number of fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2013, 18,000 lives could have been saved and nearly $210 million in related medical costs could have been avoided. Even if the United States shared the same percentage in motor vehicle death rates as Belgium, which had the second-lowest percentage reduction in their motor vehicle death rate, 12,000 fewer lives could have been lost in 2013 and an estimated $140 million saved in direct medical costs.

In addition, the United States ranked highest for the number of alcohol-impaired motor vehicle accidents, coming in with 31% of all crashes related to alcohol use, and ranked just 1 percentage point higher than the overall mean in the number of speeding related accidents, totaling 29%. The United States also ranked 18th out of 20 countries reporting for front seatbelt use and 13th of the 18 countries reporting for rear seatbelt use. During 2013, 87% of Americans wore their seatbelt in the front seat and 78% of Americans wore a seatbelt in the backseat.

“Motor vehicle injuries are predictable and preventable, and yet, in 2013, 90 persons died every day on US roads. Lower rates in other high-income countries, as well as a high prevalence of risk factors in the United States, suggest that the United States can make more progress toward reducing motor vehicle crash deaths,” the authors wrote in their report.

The researchers suggested that policies relating to child passenger safety, seat belt use, and alcohol-impaired driving need to be better aligned with practice as means of enforcing effective safety strategies for drivers. They added that evolving infrastructure and innovative vehicle technologies, like ignition interlocks and cameras, have the potential to narrow the gap between the United States and the other high-performing countries outlined in this study.