Why Are U.S. Drivers So Bad?

Exploding tires have been blamed for 101 deaths in the United States in the past eight years, but distracted, poorly trained drivers who drink coffee and talk on mobile phones may have more to do with the high death toll on American roads.

More than 41,000 deaths were recorded on American roads last year. Experts say American drivers break road rules, are frequently distracted and aren’t often trained to handle emergency situations. In European countries with faster, safer roads, people wonder: Are Americans just bad drivers?

“I’ve driven a lot in Germany. Your average American wouldn’t stand a chance over there,” says Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for the Automobile Club of New York.

Spectacular Speeds, Strict Requirements

The United States sits in the middle of the pack for highway safety in an analysis of 28 European, North American and Asian countries undertaken by Germany’s Federal Highway Research Institute in 1998. Portuguese roads are nearly twice as deadly as in the United States, the statistics say. German and British roads are safer.

Sinclair says the good safety records on German roads are particularly surprising because Germans drive so fast. Speeds over 140 mph are common on the nation’s autobahns, he said.

“There are strict speed limits in the [neighboring] Netherlands. As soon as you hit Germany, if your window is open, you can hear engines begin to scream as they accelerate to German cruising speeds,” he says.

German tires have nylon caps that make them stiffer, better for handling at high speeds and less likely to lose treads. The Firestone tires blamed for tread-separation-related deaths, like most U.S. tires, don’t have the nylon caps. Firestone officials have said Americans prefer a softer ride and the caps aren’t needed at American driving speeds.

The biggest difference between the two countries isn’t in tires, but driving habits, says Alex Landsdorff, press attaché at the German Embassy in Washington. German drivers actually obey the rules, he says. They don’t cruise in the left lane, they keep both hands on the wheel and act predictably.

“You know what the guy behind you’s up to and you know what the guy ahead of you’s up to. That’s never the case [in the U.S.],” he says.

At German speeds, drivers are less likely to become distracted — they don’t shave, put on makeup, play with the CD changer or do the various things that lead to American drivers taking their eyes off the road, says David Champion, head of Consumer Union’s auto testing center in East Haddam, Conn.

“It’s very difficult to find cupholders and the like” in European cars, he said. But American drivers, accustomed to doing other things while driving, continue their dangerous habits even at high speeds, he says.

Safe Driving, Strict Licenses

Germany has stricter requirements than the United States for licenses. The Germans’ written test is tougher than Americans’, the minimum driving age is 18, and German drivers have to take classes in city traffic, on country roads, on autobahns and at night before being let loose on the roads.

Each U.S. state has its own requirements. The average age for a license is 16; fourteen states offer restricted licenses to 14-year-olds, and you have to be 18 to even sit in a driver’s seat in New York City. Most states require driver education courses for young drivers. But the quality of road and written tests varies widely. Road tests in suburban Virginia, for instance, may not involve highway driving or parallel parking.

New drivers in Germany are put on probation — similar to the graduated-license system used in 40 U.S. states — where for the first two years, any traffic infraction sends them back to driving school.

In Japan, drivers can skip their road test if they take a $2,500 driving course. Local authorities very strictly police written and road tests, people who’ve driven in Japan say. Most Japanese cities have excellent public transit systems for non-drivers.

But people in Iceland, a country without particularly good public transportation, still need to take 30 hours of courses before their road test, says Fridrik Jonsson, secretary at the Icelandic Embassy in Washington. And driving in snow and ice are part of the “de facto” training in a country where “black ice” makes winter roads treacherous.

“People [in D.C.] have no clue how to drive in snow or ice,” he says.

Slow and Safe

Britain is another safe-driving country with a strict driving exam — only about half the people taking driving tests pass. There, driving slowly and safely isn’t by choice. British roads are congested, with the average speed in London hovering around 11 mph, according to Andrew Howard, head of road safety for the nation’s Automobile Association.

Unlike in the United States, few British cities have freeways going through the center, meaning most driving is done on country roads or busy streets with lights.

“Our plummet in road deaths in recent years has been particularly in urban areas. You now can’t get up the speed to have them,” Howard says.

The renowned British stiff upper lip may also play a role. Though that country coined the term “road rage,” expatriate American Janice Murphy says she’s noticed British drivers are much less aggressive there than in her home state of New Jersey.

“You still have very much more courtesy and abiding by the rules in England. Someone will go zipping by at 100 [mph] , but they’ll do it in the appropriate lane,” says Murphy, who has been living in London for 11 years.

Be Glad You’re Not Russian Europeans may criticize, but American drivers are very safe compared to those in Turkey, South Korea and Russia.

Turkey has the dubious honor of being the subject of the State Department’s only “driver safety briefing,” a catalog of driving horrors that warns about “pedestrians seemingly completely oblivious to oncoming traffic … vehicles backing up (in reverse) on exit ramps and on main highways … [and] oncoming drivers who play inscrutable light games, flashing and flashing whether you have your ‘brights’ [high beams] on or not.”

In Russia, “there are, of course, standards and rules to be followed, but nobody follows them,” says Sergius Morenc, ABCNEWS correspondent in Moscow. Drivers bribe police to let non-roadworthy vehicles on the roads, drunken driving and lane-straddling abound, and insurance isn’t required. “If somebody breaks down, say, in the fast lane, he will take his spare wheel out or start working on the engine where he stopped,” Morenc says.

Russia isn’t on the German road-safety list, and bad drivers don’t always make for the most dangerous roads. The worst score on the list goes to South Korea, where congested roads in poor repair — not driving habits — lead to accidents, spokesmen for the South Korean Embassy in Washington says.

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