04 April 2012

Safest roads in Europe?

A lot of the English expats I know here in France tell me that heavy traffic and aggressive driving in the United Kingdom are realities of life there that make driving in France a pleasure in comparison. I hear horror stories from English friends about short daily commutes in England that take hours every morning and evening.

It's not surprising to me, having lived and commuted long distances in California for years, to hear that commuting is a major source of stress in many peoples' lives. And when I think about England, which has 50 million or more people packed into 50,000 square miles of territory... well, that makes for a lot of cars.

By comparison, North Carolina, my home state, is also 50,000 square miles but has a population of "only" 10 million. Even New York State, the same size, has a population of less than 20 million. Imagine the congestion in England! France is four times bigger in area — 200,000 square miles — with a population now of 65 million.

And then imagine how many more cars there are on the roads, in all the European countries and in North America, than there were 30 or 40 years ago, when many of us "young retirees" started driving. It boggles my mind.

A day or two on France 2 television's news reports, I saw a report on the relative safety of the highways in all the European Union countries as measured by the number of deaths in automobile accidents annually. Figures were given for the EU countries as the number of highway deaths per million inhabitants in 2010. I just found a report on the web about it.

Here's the result. The country with the safest roads in Europe turned out to be Sweden, with 28 deaths per million people. It was followed closely by the United Kingdom with 31 and the Netherlands with 32. Ireland and Germany came in at 45 highway deaths per million inhabitants.

And France? Well, it was number 11 out of the 27 countries in the Union, with 64 deaths per million inhabitants. The good news is that the highway death rate in France, which was 138 per million in 2001, has been cut by more than half over the past ten years.

In raw numbers, many fewer people are killed — half as many — on French highways now than back in the 1970s and 1980s, despite the fact that there are a lot more cars on the road. Speed limits, seat belts, air bags, safer vehicles, improved roads, and tighter law enforcement have made a difference.

The highway fatality rate is down by more than a third in all the Western European countries over the past 10 years. The EU average is 69 highway deaths per million inhabitants, making France about average. Eastern Europe (Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece), where driving is the most dangerous, still have long way to go to catch up.

I haven't found equivalent statistics for the U.S., but the report on France 2 news said EU highways are safer than US roads by the deaths per million inhabitants standard.


  1. Interesting to me to read and think how many fewer people the English and others kill on the roads. I took a look at the numbers and found the old story that England is not the UK, the latest figures are so old and that you can never really tell if the causes are really for traffic or transport generally. No wonder researchers have jobs for life.

  2. The rate of road-related injuries has remained stable over the past ten years, at least in France. So yes, they're less deadly than before, but la route ne tue pas toujours...

  3. Out of the 30+ countries I've driven in, I find French drivers some of the scariest as they tend to combine aggression (especially with tail-gating and claiming right of way) and carelessness (driving wrong side of road on blind bends and hills).

    So many locals have been forced to switch to mini-vehicles because of drink driving records. I still don't like being out on the roads after lunch.

  4. Ken,
    Your post sent my mind wondering where Australia sat within the stats.
    In a country of 20m people we had 1368 road deaths in 2011.
    In my home state of Victoria we had 291 deaths where we have a population of 5.6m.
    I still hate the traffic.

  5. Further to Leon's comments, I live in Western Australian which is one third the space of Australia and the drivers here have recently been deemed some of the most aggressive in the world...by a UK based writer for Wheels? Excuse me for not being sure of the source, but I heard the interview on the radio.We have space and a small population...it doesn't make sense...but then again, I enjoy driving in France!

  6. English drivers are aggressive? Non, they are so polite as they all try to give way to each other, it causes confusion and congestion and perhaps cause more accidents as both drivers wave each other on, both start, then stop, then wave each other on again and then crash into each other.

  7. Andrew, a lot of the people I talk to would disagree about the English driving style. Have you seen Jean's post on A Very Grand Pressigny?

    Two English people I know, who live near Saint-Aignan, went back to spend a part of the winter in England. A few days before their return, they were rear-ended by a speeding car. Both got serious whiplash, and their car was totaled. I know, just a random example, but I keep hearing horror stories, at least from those who have left England to move to France.

    Mike, my experience is only the U.S. and France, so I have to take your word for it. I do see some tail-gaters, and certainly a lot of people have a heavy foot when driving the local roads. But in general, we're just a bunch of old fogies tootling around the area.

    Leon, I looked up the stats for California. It's 165,000 square miles (three times England), with nearly 40 million people and 3,100 deaths annually in traffic accidents. Of course the Californians are concentrated in the south (L.A. area with 20 million and SF-Sacramento area with 8 million), so a lot of the state is wide open spaces.

  8. Oh, two other things. Here's Jean's post about English traffic and drivers.

    When I saw that so many fewer people are killed on UK highways compared to French ones, I figured there must be so much congestion, so many traffic jams, over there that there just aren't that many opportunities for speed and carelessness to cause major mortal accidents.

  9. Intersting post Ken. One of the big reasons the UK fatality rate is much lower than you'd expect considering the driving standards and attitudes is quite simply that there are far too many cars on the road. Fatalities have been falling not because of better driving but simply beacuse as the roads get clogged most jouneys rarely touch speeds high enough. Slow traffic = less fatalities.
    France by contrast has for the most part very little traffic and lots of long empty country roads, ideal for a fatal accident.
    So be warned holiday makers - don't go mad on them.


  10. Nick, that was my take on it too. I probably got an understanding from talking to you and Jean.

  11. In Australia I think the main danger is underage leadfooted drivers - often racing each other. I lived in a rural area as a kid and the road fatality rate amongst late teens was awful. It hasn't improved in 30 years.

    By contrast in France, it's actually the old fogies I worry about most as in rural areas they're often a little bit too topped up with wine. I don't worry about the highways so much except the Parisian ring-roads.

    It may surprise some but I find Brits (outside of London mayhem) to be among the more polite drivers. I've had several years driving around most of the UK and really the major stressor is traffic jams rather than bad/mad drivers.

    Italian drivers are mad, but they are courteous at letting you merge - which surprised me but a week of driving around Naples proved to be much easier than driving around French cities and villages where people don't seem to make any allowances for pedestrians or other road users.

  12. The reports on the French news would give me the impression that England is the nicest, most pleasant place to drive in Europe — if I didn't know from people who live there that it's so congested.

  13. I wonder what the figures would look like if they were expressed in relation not to the population but to the number of "passenger miles" travelled by car?

  14. Autolycus, that's the way the U.S. highway fatality statistics are given: number of deaths per so many miles driven. It's hard to compare the two systems.

  15. A late comment, as we just returned from a month in France. I've always had problems with the aggressive nature of French drivers, particularly tailgating and passing in bad spots. However, this trip it seemed that the situation had improved somewhat, although we did come across the aftermath of a horrendous accident on a winding mountain road that was probably caused by passing on a curve. But it seemed that while I still encountered some aggressive drivers, there was less than in past years. And I know that the French are much more cautious about speed and driving after drinking than ever before.


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