American Scientist, 90(1); pages 4-5, Jan-Feb 2002 -- Letter to the Editor
Driving and Human Health
To: The Editors:
Many results in Clyde Hertzman's insightful article "Health and Human Society" (November-December) parallel those associated with one specific factor, namely motor-vehicle crashes, which annually kill a million people world-wide, most of them young. In general, the wealthier the country, the lower the number of traffic deaths per vehicle, with rates varying by more than a hundred between the richest and poorest countries. However, like longevity, there are important differences among the wealthiest countries. For example, twelve countries (Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Britain, Switzerland, Japan, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Canada, Finland and Luxembourg) have rates lower than the United States. This set of countries has much overlap with Hertzman's above-trend longevity countries.
Prior to the late 1970s the US had the lowest traffic fatality rate in the world. While many other countries made impressive progress, the US stagnated. From 1980 to 1999, the number of traffic fatalities in, for example, Canada, Britain and Australia declined by 46%, 43% and 46% respectively, compared to a modest 19% decline in the US. If the US decline had been 43%, fewer than 30,000 people per year would be dying in US traffic, compared to the more than 40,000 actually killed.
Because about two million people die annually in the United States, I do not mean to suggest that traffic deaths affect the general patterns that Hertzman described, but what is so tragically distinct about traffic crashes is the young age of those killed.
The centerpiece of failed US safety policy has been an obsessive focus on such technologies as airbags, vehicle-crash ratings, and tires. While this focus has generated unbelievable fortunes for many in the US legal system, it is well known by the world's safety-research community to be of little relevance to the vast majority of the crashes that killed 41,821 people on US roads in 2000. The low relevance of these technologies presents a compelling parallel with Hertzman's conclusion that high technology medicine is not the leading contributor to a nation's overall longevity
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