Driving a car is safer than ever for the simple reason that cars are safer than ever—thanks to features like seat belts, air bags, and electronic stability control. That's one reason why deaths per miles driven have plummeted around the developed world in the five decades since Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed. In fact, the U.S. used to be the safest country for drivers among all OECD countries in the early 1970s. By the middle of the last decade, the rest of the world had caught up.
This week, a new study (pdf) from the Transportation Research Initiative at the University of Michigan looks at global driving fatalities with up-to-date World Health Organization data. Around the world, deaths in fatal car crashes are 1/6th as likely as dying from a common health problem, like heart disease. In the U.S., where road crashes account for just 2 percent of deaths, individuals are 13 times more likely to die from cancer.
Here is the map of driving fatality rates per capita, with the most deadly countries (led by Namibia) in red and the safest countries (led by the Maldives) in green. The world average is 18 fatalities from a car accident per 100,000 individuals. The U.S. is just under that figure—at 14, compared to Australia (7) and the U.K. (5).
The study goes on to map fatality rates from cancer, which shows an opposite picture, with the lowest rates in Africa and the highest rates in Europe. In fact, 24 of the 25 countries with the highest per capita cancer fatalities are in Europe. The 10 nations with the highest rates are Hungary, Croatia, Denmark, Slovenia, Italy, San Marino, Japan, Latvia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic.
This isn't a morbid point so much as a truism: The data of death is really more like a picture of the way we live. It is lower-income and developing countries where auto fatalities post a sizable threat to individuals, compared to heart disease and cancer, whose risks rise with old age and obesity (both hallmarks of richer nations). In 21 African countries, from Namibia to Tanzania, auto fatalities killed half as many people as cancer did. In the OECD, the U.S and South Korea are, relatively, the most dangerous countries for drivers, and cancer deaths outnumber car fatalities by at least 10-to-1.