Traffic fatalities in the United States have been falling off for years and some say a major victory for regulation (strict drunken driving laws have helped) and auto innovation (we have safer cars) have been responsible. But that progress obscures a surprising type of inequality: The most disadvantaged are more likely – and have grown even more likely over time – to die in car crashes than people who are well-off. New research by Sam Harper, Thomas J. Charters and Erin C. Strumpf, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, finds that improvements in road safety since the 1990s haven’t been evenly shared. The biggest declines in fatalities have occurred among the most educated. As for people 25 and older with less than a high school diploma, fatality rates have actually increased over time, bucking the national trend:
The underlying issue here is not that a college degree makes a person a better driver. Instead, the least-educated tend to live with a lot of other conditions that can make getting around more dangerous. They own cars that are older and have lower crash-test ratings. Those with less education are also likely to earn less and don’t have the money for needed safety features such as side airbags, automatic warnings and rear cameras.
The number of trauma centers has also declined in poor and rural communities, according to the researchers. This could affect the health care people have access to after a collision. The poor areas also suffer from other conditions that can make the roads themselves less safe. Poor communities in many cities lack crosswalks over major roads. The residents who live in those areas may have less political power to fight for design improvements like stop signs, sidewalks and speed bumps. As a result, pedestrian fatalities in particular are higher in the poor communities. Harper, one of the researchers, had this to say:
It’s true that there are big differences in the quality of the residential environments that people have in terms of their risks of accidental death as pedestrians.
The role of behavioral differences is not so clear. While some studies show lower seat-belt use among the less-educated, seat-belt use has also increased faster among that group over time. That would indicate that socioeconomic differences insofar as seat belt use is concerned, are narrowing. Data on alcohol use is also conflicting. The chart shown above, based on National Center for Health Statistics data used by the researchers, captures miles traveled not just by car, but also bus or other motor vehicles. It is evident that lower income folks are more likely to use transit, while the wealthy travel more by private car. The fatalities also include the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists hit in car crashes.
In 1995, these death rates – adjusted for age, sex and race – were about 2.5 times higher for people at the bottom of the education spectrum than those at the top. By 2010, they were about 4.3 times higher. That means the inequality of traffic fatalities is getting worse. We increasingly hear about new technologies that will save us from our own driving errors. There are to be cars that will brake for us, spot cyclists that we can’t see, and even take over all the navigation. It’s reasonable to anticipate that, at first, those benefits will mostly go to the more wealthy.
Source: The Washington Post
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