From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, the US and France were more or less the same in traffic fatality rates. In fact, they had both declined by 31 percent from 1979 to 1994. Today, though, people getting around in the US are three times more likely to die than in France. What happened?
Bloomberg CityLab spoke with Urban Institute researcher Yonah Freemark about the key differences between the United States and France and many other countries.
More cars, more danger
France isn’t an outlier. Roads in Canada, the EU, Japan, Australia, and Russia have become safer in recent years. In fact, the US is the outlier, with its traffic fatality rates surging 10.5 percent last year, a 40-year high.
According to Freemark, there are many key differences between the US and other developed nations that account for the disparity. He uses France, a country where he’s lived, to highlight the differences.
Car safety improvements like seatbelts and airbags kept the US at pace with France in the 70s and 80s. Lighted roads and campaigns against drunk driving were also a big help. In the early 2000s, though, France implemented widespread speed cameras on highways and local roads. The US has these, but not nearly as many. A key difference was France pedestrianizing its inner cities.
Starting in the 1990s, French cities like Bordeaux and Paris began making their city centers and many of their streets friendlier to pedestrians and bikers, and less to cars. That trend grew over the years, and now it’s almost become a national policy, with cars being banned in the capital’s city center. The US, however, did not follow this course.
Save the environment, save people
Certain US cities have gotten on the safety train late, with Washington DC implementing a higher registration fee for heavier trucks, which are more likely to get in accidents in cities. According to Freemark, though, it was less about saving lives than it was about saving the planet. Gas prices in France are decidedly pricier, and they tax heavier vehicles so much that the DC registration fee looks tiny.
“My perception is that many of the changes that have occurred in France have been about improving the environment, reducing pollution, and creating more vibrant city centers — all of which are only marginally about safety. They have this nice side effect of contributing to the decline in fatalities that we’d like to see in the USA,” said Freemark.
What’s more, Freemark remarks that business booms with foot traffic in the city centers. That is an important lesson for Americans who believe that American cities can’t economically function without cars.