Accident Rates in the United States

Although you might never know it from reading the morning newspaper or watching the nightly news, America is actually a much safer place than it used to be.

The number of deaths due to accidents, for example, has fallen from 87 per 100,000 people in 1903 to 38 per 100,000 in 1989, a decrease of more than half. Deaths due to accidents have declined in all categories, and the declines have become more pronounced recently, with the biggest declines coming in the 1980s.

The eighties saw a decline in the death rate at work and at home. Deaths from falls, drownings and airplane crashes fell by 30 percent. And perhaps most suprisingly, accidents associated with firearms declined in the eighties.

These statistics have not been adjusted for age, and the population as a whole is growing older. Since accidents tend to increase with age, the fact that their have been fewer accidents even though the population has been aging is remarkable.

The greatest improvements have come in child safety. From 1903 to 1989 deaths due to accidents fell by 78 percent for children under the age of five. This might well be due to better medical care that has been much more effective in saving lives of children in serious accidents.

Deaths due to car and truck accidents account for about half of the accidental deaths in the U.S. each year. In the least safe year, 1937, about 31 people per 100,000 lost their lives to vehicular accidents. 1989 showed a vast improvement as that figure went down to 19 per 100,000.

But that’s not the whole story. If these figures were given per mile driven, rather than per person, they would show a spectacular increase in safety, taking into account how much more the average person drives today. Per million miles driven, deaths have fallen from 22 in 1923 to about two in 1989.

While the modern news media dwell almost obsessively over catastrophes such as the rare plane crash, the chances of your dying in an accident 50 years ago were much greater than they are today.

Statistically, a person had about four to five times greater chance of dying in a flood, fire, airplane crash or other disaster during an average year in the 1940s as compared to 1983. The last disaster to claim more than 500 lives, a ship explosion in Texas, took place in 1947, 49 years ago. However, prior to that time, catastrophes taking more than 1,000 lives were not unusual:

  • A Texas tidal wave in 1900 sent 6,000 to their watery graves
  • A Florida hurricane in 1928 blew away 1,833 loved ones
  • Three separate shipping accidents in 1865, 1904 and 1914 resulted in more than 1,000 deaths each
  • A Wisconsin fire in 1871 killed 1,152 people

The decrease in accidental deaths in the United States has been duplicated all over the world. For example, accident rates in West Germany declined by 48 percent from 1967 to 1988. Japan, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Iceland and England have all had similarly dramatic declines.

There are many possible explanations for these declines. The most convincing of those advanced seem to be these:

  • Rising standards of living, enabling consumers to choose safer products
  • Better medical care, which has turned previously life-threatening accidents into minor scrapes
  • Technological change resulting in higher safety standards
  • The shift in employment from agriculture and industry to relatively safer jobs in the service sector

Whatever the cause, the increase in safety can only be considered good news.

: “The State of Humanity,” edited by Julian Simon, 1995.

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