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Traffic Deaths In Japan Fell To A Fourth Of What They Were In Less Than Half A Century
How did they do it?
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In the 1990s, per capita traffic deaths in Japan were steady around 8 deaths per 100,000 people. Now, less than half a century later, their traffic fatality rate has fallen to about a fourth of what it was, now being at 2.25 deaths per capita, less than a fifth of America’s current per capita rate of traffic deaths at about 12.7.
At first this made me question my assumptions about driving, which a lot of you know is something I’d prefer not to do. I’ve always thought that, beyond improving crash safety features in our cars, which we’ve done by leaps and bounds, there’s nothing else we can really do. And so the current rate of traffic mortality is simply what it is.
It seemed that Japan was telling me a different story, that there actually was some way to make driving safe, perhaps some laws, road features, additional training, or elevated car safety standards that we in the USA have failed to implement. But the answer turned out to be much more boring, and entirely consistent with my own solution to the matter: fewer people are driving in Japan.
Here’s an article from Bloomberg with some thoughts about the current US uptick in traffic mortalities in contrast with declines seen elsewhere, and some points about Japan’s own traffic death decline:
In mid-August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that the surge in American traffic deaths is continuing: An estimated 9,560 people died on US roadways in the first quarter of 2022, 7% more than a year ago and the highest first quarter total in two decades.
The traffic safety slide is a trend that precedes Covid-19, but the disruptions of the pandemic seemed to exacerbate the issue in the US, a phenomenon that observers like New York Times’ David Leonhardt have attributed to mental health issues and smartphone use: “Many Americans have felt frustrated or unhappy, and it seems to have affected their driving,” he wrote recently, adding in a tweetthat “traffic deaths began to rise around 2015…around the same time that smartphones became ubiquitous.”
If stress and cell phones are causing this crisis, it’s curious why so many other countries have avoided it. Almost all developed nations have seen a decline in roadway deaths over the last decade, while the US has endured a 30% rise. As I wrote recently in CityLab, an American is now about 2.5 times as likely as a Canadian to die in a crash and three times as likely as a French citizen.
The contrast is even starker with Japan, a country known for its innovative approach to transportation (where else can you watch a baseball manager enter a stadium on a hovercraft?). Fewer than 3,000 people died in Japanese crashes in 2021, compared to almost 43,000 in the United States. On a per capita basis, Japan had just 2.24 deaths per 100,000 residents, less than a fifth the US rate of 12.7 per 100,000.
And Japanese roads are getting even safer: 2021 saw the fewest road fatalities of any year since record-keeping began in 1948. It’s quite a change from the 1960s, when a booming economy and millions of inexperienced drivers contributed to annual fatality figures six times higher than they are today. So dangerous were the nation’s streets that Japanese observers called the phenomenon the “Traffic War,” noting that annual roadway deaths exceeded those from the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-5.
The Bloomberg article goes on to offer some answers to how Japan was able to manage this, which concentrate on the nation’s safe, fast, and reliable train systems, as well as a dearth of street level parking, both of which discourage car ownership and end up saving thousands of lives in Japan every year.
For reasons unknown to me, we haven’t done anything like this across the US, and I’ll have to look into why. But as of now I have to say I’m much more train-positive than I was before, and I think advanced public transportation is a bare-minimum good that wealthy nations should heavily invest in.
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