Icy roads save lives: surprising outcomes from Canadian winters

Did you know that driving fatalities in Canada are MUCH lower per capita than in the US? About 38,000 Americans (drivers, passengers, cyclists, pedestrians) are predicted to die in auto accidents in 2016[1], on a population of 325 million, which is a rate of 11.7 fatalities per 100,000 population. Meanwhile Canada, with 36.5 million people, will likely see deaths of around 2,100 in 2016[2], or 5.8 per 100,000: almost exactly half the US rate.

Which is odd: we are both big countries with varied terrain, challenging weather, similar propensity for long road trips, and large populations of daily car commuters from the suburbs. We drive mostly the same cars, from the same manufacturers, with the same safety features. Regulations aren’t identical, but they are largely similar.

One difference is almost certainly motorcycles. I used to ride, and still have my motorcycle license…but they are NOT as safe as cars in a crash, and we all know it. Lots of people in California and Florida ride year round, which is not true of any cities in Canada, expect Vancouver and Victoria. The risk of death from riding a motorcycle is between 5 and 35 times higher than for a car, depending on how you calculate it, so higher rates of two wheeler driving in the US raises their national death rate. Also, US motorcyclists are less likely to wear helmets.

Another contributing factor is seat belt usage. In Canada, over 95% of people used seat belts as of 2010, while the US was 10 percentage points behind in the same year, with only 85% compliant. That 5% of unbelted drivers and passengers represented over 35% of all road fatalities in Canada, so it is obvious that the lower US rate of seat belt usage is a big contributor.

Another factor (that I haven’t seen anywhere else!) is salt. Every winter, we try to keep our roads and highways clear with road salt: Ontario alone uses over 2 million tonnes per year! In addition to the cost and environmental harm, all that salt leads to accelerated corrosion of our cars and trucks. I seldom see a car over 15-20 years old in Ontario, Canada. The engines may still work, but the body is shot.

But in Ontario, California I pass many vehicles from 1995 and earlier. These are not “vintage” cars as we know them in Canada: lovingly kept in special garages and taken out briefly to auto shows. These are clunkers; 25 year old cars and trucks that are driven by people who largely can’t afford to buy a new one. Not only do they not have air bags or ABS, I am fairly sure some of them may not have steering wheels and/or brakes! 🙂

Those cars are pretty bad polluters with terrible gas mileage…but they are also death traps: more likely to get into a serious accident, and much less able to protect occupants in the event of a crash. And that fleet of extremely old cars just doesn’t exist up here.

I would estimate that  the “forced retirement” of Canadian cars due to corrosion from anti-ice usage SAVES a couple of hundred Canadian lives a year.

Pass the salt.




[1] The US number for 2016 is an estimate based on the reported rates for the first half of 2016. Something odd is going on in the US: the rate was around 26 per 100,000 in 1972, and has been falling pretty steadily since then to 2014. But 2015 and 2016 saw the rate move sharply upwards. No one is sure why, but one theory is that the sudden increase in distracted driving due to smartphones is the biggest contributor.

[2] The Canadian numbers are my own estimate. The 2014 reported statistic was 1,834 deaths. I am assuming that the Canadian numbers are rising at about the same rate as the US. There are some anecdotal reports than Canadian deaths are rising in the last two years too and possibly for the same reason as the US.

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