Americans don’t wear seat belts as much and are killed more often in crashes caused by drunk drivers, making them twice as likely to die on the road, compared to people in other wealthy countries.
Those findings, released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, come days after another federal agency reported a disturbing jump in traffic fatalities in 2015.
While the U.S. has seen significant improvements in recent years, with the per capita death rate dropping by 31 percent from 2000 to 2013, the progress was slower than in the 19 other countries examined, the CDC found in its latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The average death rate went down 56 percent during that same period in 19 countries used in the comparison, including Japan, Canada and United Kingdom.
If the United States had kept pace and cut its death rate (10.3 per 100,000 people) to the average for the other countries (4.4 people per 100,000), at least 18,000 fewer people would have been killed that year, according to the CDC.
And that’s not putting U.S. results up against individual countries known as stellar performers. “If the United States’ motor vehicle crash death rate was equivalent to the rate in Sweden (the best performing country), at least 24,000 fewer lives would have been lost,” the CDC concluded.
“It’s really important to compare us not only to our past but our potential,” said Debra Houry, an emergency room physician who is director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “I know we can do this as well, and even better” than other countries.
An estimated 35,200 people died on U.S. roads in 2015, or 96 a day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s a 7.7 percent jump over 2014 at a time when cars are getting safer and experts say deaths should be declining.
The CDC said proven policies and technologies would cut the death number sharply, including installing breath-testing ignition locks to stymie convicted drunk drivers.
Laws requiring seat-belt use both in the front and back of cars — and allowing tickets to be issued solely for breaking those regulations, not just as add-ons for speeding and other offenses — would also reduce the death totals, the CDC said.
Such efforts have often foundered for political reasons, with some objecting to what they see as nanny state overreach.
The United States was tied for second place with New Zealand for the dubious distinction of most deaths connected to alcohol-impaired driving, at 31 percent. Only Canada, at 33.6 percent, was higher.
Americans wore seat belts in front seats 87 percent of the time, ranking the United States 18th of 20 countries examined.
Nearly 1 in 3 deaths involved speeding, according to Erin Sauber-Schatz, lead author of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Distracted driving of all types — from texting to taking your eyes or mind off the road for numerous other reasons — accounted for about 10 percent of fatal crashes, Sauber-Schatz said.
Researchers took different cuts at the issue to try to account for distinct American characteristics, including the country’s size and high levels of driving.
Looked at by motor vehicle crashes per 10,000 registered vehicles, the United States still topped the list.
When the deaths were measured per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, the U.S. dropped to fifth highest, behind Japan and Spain, who topped the list, as well as Slovenia and Belgium.
“We are not performing as well as other high-income countries that are similar to us in many other aspects,” Sauber-Schatz said.
Basic measures, such as getting more people to wear seatbelts in the back seat, can have a large impact, she said. The U.S. ranked 13th out of 18 countries on that measure, at 78 percent. Universal seatbelt use — “every seat on every trip no matter how short,” is the public health mantra — would save 3,000 more lives a year, the researchers said. Seatbelts saved an estimated 12,500 lives in 2013, according to the CDC.
The deadly results of belt-less travel hit all age groups.
“This is even true for children. Thirty-eight percent of children 12 and under who died in crashes in 2013 were not buckled up,” Houry said.
Even when belts are used for young people, safer practices could reduce the death tally, the CDC said, including requiring car seats and booster seats for kids eight and younger.
The rest of the countries used for comparison also set their drunk driving levels far below the .08 percent in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, according to the CDC. Their standards range from .02 percent to .05 percent blood alcohol concentration.
Driving in America’s rural expanses has also proven particularly deadly.
More than half of people who died on U.S. roads did so in rural areas, Sauber-Schatz said.
On deadly crashes involving speeding, the United States was in the middle of the pack, ranked 8 out of 15. More than 9,500 died that way in 2013.