Last night after I got home from work I stumbled across a Washington Post article about the human toll of worldwide traffic accidents. The article is actually part of the Roads Kill project by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, spearheaded by journalists Tom Hundley and Dan McCarey. The series focuses on the huge number of lives lost each year due to motor vehicle accidents (1.24 million worldwide) and how these losses are disproportionately borne by poor countries (“It’s costing on average between 1 and 3 percent of GDP.”). In addition to traditional articles, there is an excellent map of the world where you can quickly compare rates of traffic fatalities between countries. In addition to these excellent facts and reporting, I learned that in 2010, the United Nations called for a Decade of Action for Road Safety in an effort to reduce worldwide traffic fatalities.
After perusing the interactive map for a while, I was somewhat startled to realize that the US is nowhere near the top in fewest motor vehicle deaths. The US has 11.4 fatalities per 100,000 people per year. This rate is on par with Turkey and Uzbekistan, but considerably worse than most of Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 33,561 traffic fatalities and 2,362,000 traffic-related injuries in the US in 2012. That comes out to 92 deaths and 6,471 injuries per day due to motor vehicles in the US.
The traffic stories from around the world sound strikingly similar to traffic here in DC. Granted, we don’t see many goats strapped to the back of a scooter, but we see plenty of major and minor traffic violations, drunk driving, and sometimes lax enforcement of the rules of the road. Every time I walk through Washington Circle, I am consistently amazed to witness almost complete disregard for all traffic rules. Since the stories from abroad showed similarities to our own traffic, I wondered to what extent traffic fatalities disproportionately affect the poor in the DC metro area.
To try to scratch the surface on this issue, I’ve pulled together some traffic fatality statistics from NHTSA and compared them with poverty measurements by the US Census Bureau. Both of these sets of data were provided by county, so I’ve used county comparisons for Virginia and Maryland (without any county divisions, DC doesn’t make a good candidate for comparison, but DC’s rate of traffic fatalities is 4.3 and its poverty rate is 18.5%). The fatality statistics below are the number of traffic fatalities per 100,000 people in the population, averaged over the five years between 2008 – 2012. The poverty statistics are the percentage of the population that falls under the federal poverty line. Here are the results:
Counties with Lowest Rate of Traffic Fatalities
(Lowest Fatality Rate to Highest)
Looking at the numbers from the other direction:
Counties with Highest Rate of Traffic Fatalities
(Highest Fatality Rate to Lowest)
King and Qu
Comparing these data suggests that even here in the US, there is some correlation between traffic fatalities and areas where poverty is more prevalent. It is certainly striking that the counties nearest to the DC area, which are among the wealthiest in the country, also have the lowest rate of traffic fatalities in the area. While there are many factors that probably correlate with traffic fatalities (population density, interstate highways, traffic enforcement, etc), it appears that poverty is probably one of them. Sadly, this correlation seems to occur on both the local and the global level.
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