Canada: Winners in More than Hockey

In a 20-year-period, Canadian traffic fatalities dropped by 47 percent, despite the fact the number of vehicles on the road increased by 48 percent.

Over the past 20 years, Canada''s traffic safety record has been second to none, says the Canada Safety Council (CSC).

In December 2001, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its report on road fatalities that showed Canadian traffic fatalities dropped 47 percent between 1980 and 2000.

"This turnaround was achieved despite a big increase in vehicles and drivers during that time," says CSC President Emile Therien. The number of vehicles went up 48 percent, while the number of licensed drivers rose 37 percent.

Only three OECD member countries experienced more progress: Austria and Switzerland cut the number of traffic deaths by 51 percent and Germany by 50 percent. The average improvement for all OECD countries combined was 20 percent. Britain, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have the lowest motor vehicle fatality rates - less than seven per 100,000 of population. Canada, with significantly higher vehicle ownership, has a road fatality rate of 10 per 100,000. The average for reporting OECD countries is 12.5.

The OECD data do not correlate motor vehicle deaths with miles or kilometers driven. According to a recent Transport Canada survey, Canadians log 475 billion kilometers a year (over 295 million miles); in other words, the average licensed driver travels over 23,000 km (14,292 miles) annually.

Therien suggests that if kilometers driven were factored in, Canada would likely be number one in traffic safety. He cites reductions in impaired driving as a prime example that traffic safety laws are working. In 1980, half of all drivers killed in crashes were over the legal limit; in 2000, just over one-quarter of all drivers were legally impaired. Other major factors in the reduction of automobile accidents high rate of seat-belt use, safer vehicles, driver behavior and public awareness campaigns.

According to CSC, further progress will hinge on making existing laws work more effectively, rather than making more laws. For instance, a ban on cell phones has been suggested, even though careless driving laws are already in place. Since 1994, road fatalities have dropped by 10 percent while cell phone use has increased five-fold to over 10 million. The evidence does not support calls for a new law, says CSC.

The OECD report credits high tech law enforcement tools such as photo radar and red light cameras for reducing collisions in member countries. However, many Canadian cities and provinces have been reluctant to implement this technology. Although running red lights could contribute to as many as 200 deaths and 13,000 injuries annually, some politicians still view red light cameras with suspicion. Therien believes that universal acceptance of electronic enforcement would enable Canada to make further progress.

"As Canadians we are too humble," he concludes. "Our country is a world leader in road safety. We''re doing a lot of things right."

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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