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What If Safe Driving Was an Olympic Sport?

Competition is in the air as the 2012 Summer Olympics have officially kicked off. This year, over 200 countries will compete in 300 events including swimming, basketball, gymnastics and tennis. But at AARP Driver Safety, we can’t help but wonder: what if safe driving was an Olympic sport-which country would take home the gold medal? Which countries have the safest drivers, roads, and why?

According to the World Health Organization, the Marshall Islands have the safest roads by far. In 2007, there were only 1.7 road traffic deaths per 100,000 people. Second and third place go to Malta and Uruguay, with respective rates 3.4 and 4.3.

Here’s a list of the top 10 countries with the safest roads, according to their road fatality rate per 100,000 people:

  1. Marshall Islands: 1.7
  2. Malta: 3.4
  3. Uruguay: 4.3
  4. Netherlands: 4.8
  5. Singapore: 4.8
  6. Switzerland: 4.9
  7. Japan: 5
  8. Norway: 5
  9. Sweden: 5.2
  10. United Kingdom: 5.4

While the U.S. is a strong competitor in the Olympic Games, it turns out that we wouldn’t get very far in the “safe driving” event. Among the 178 countries listed, the U.S. is ranked 66, with an average of 13.9 road fatalities per 100,000 people a year.

What makes their roads so much safer than ours?

Income level plays an important role in driver safety. Over 90% of the deaths on the roads occur in low-income and middle-income countries, which have only 48% of the world’s registered vehicles (WHO). But income isn’t the only factor.

Having compared the U.S. to several countries with a lower traffic fatality rate, here are three key contributors that could easily be changed.

  1. Alcohol: 1/3 of road fatalities in the U.S. are attributed to alcohol, compared to half of that in Switzerland and a quarter of that in Japan. Always remember that your driving is affected with your first drink, and have a designated driver-or plan to use public transportation-at all times.
  1. Seat belts: In the U.S., only 82% of people wear their seat belts in the front seat, and 76% in the back. In Sweden, that rate is 96% and 90%, respectively. Buckling your seat-belt is a simple, effortless measure that will keep you safe. Even if you’re driving a short distance and slowly-most crashes occur when traveling below 40 mph-you can still experience a fatal impact if you are unbelted.
  1. Child restraint laws: Less than half of all countries have laws requiring the use of child restraints, even though they can reduce deaths of children by between 54% and 80% (WHO). In the U.S., the law varies from state to state, but many are unspecific and insufficient. It is seldom required that children under the age of one be placed in rear-facing seats. WHO recommends the child remain in restraints until the age of 12, but many states such as Florida and Arizona only require it until the age of 4 or 5.

While cars and roads are constantly evolving to become safer for drivers and pedestrians, remember that the most important safety feature is a safe driver. You can refresh your driving skills by taking the AARP Driver Safety course, available in a classroom or online.

Can you think of any other important factors that may contribute to certain countries having safer roads? Have you driven in other countries, and if so, what have you noticed?

Image thanks to Guillaume Tassart.

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