In this second installment of my series on road accidents in Israel, I promised to address international comparisons. This brings me straight to the second prevalent myth.
Myth II: Israel is worse than any other civilized country
This is a bit trickier to tackle than the first myth, since international comparisons are a tricky thing. For example, different countries have different definitions of what it means to be a traffic fatality. How soon after the accident does a victim have to die to be considered a road death?
Also, different countries gather and report different pieces of data, and use different methodologies in collecting them. Who gathers the statistics and how reliable are they? When data must be estimated, on what basis is the estimate made?
Finally, countries vary greatly in their road infrastructures, in vehicle use, in general levels of development and prosperity. What constitutes the typical "civilized country" Israel should be compared with? The wealthy U.S., with its high levels of vehicle ownership and low fuel prices? Other countries with Israel's level of economic development? Countries where most driving is on empty rural routes or in jammed urban areas?
Keep such factors in mind when evaluating the data. You can't draw meaningful conclusions from narrow statistical differences. That doesn't mean you can't assess the general trends, though. Let's see what we can do.
Per capita first
As before, there are (at least!) two main ways to compare fatality rates: per capita or per distance driven. As before, we'll look at both.
Per capita rates tell you how likely an average individual is to be killed in a road accident in a given year. In a sense, it answers the question, "How dangerous is it to live in this country?" with regards to traffic accidents.
Here's the answer for 2003:
Data is from this source; note the comments at the bottom of the page and remember the limitations of this sort of data. I've left out very small countries due to volatility of data. Incorrect Israel data point in this source has been corrected; Israel data for all graphs is from the Central Bureau of Statistics.
For easy identification, I've shown Israel's data in green, and a handful of major western countries in orange. Of the 45 countries shown, Israel ranks 6th. That is, only five countries had a lower fatality rate per capita. The United Kingdom placed 2nd, Japan 7th, Germany 13th, Canada 16th, France 18th, Italy 23rd, the United States a lowly 35th, and South Africa 44th between Russia and Malaysia.
In fact the U.S. fatality rate was more than double Israel's. The average person is twice as likely to be killed on the roads in the U.S. in any given year than in Israel. Israel's fatality rate is 16 percent higher than that of the supersafe U.K., though.
Surprised? Doesn't everyone know the roads are dangerous in Israel? Isn't it obvious to any American visitor, for example, that drivers are less cautious, cars are not as solid, and the roads are not as well maintained as they are at home?
All of that may be true, but that relates to how much risk is involved in driving a particular stretch of road. That is, as I explained in the previous installment, it's about not fatalities per capita but fatalities per distance driven.
Now per kilometer
Let's look at that next. The number of fatalities per distance driven answers the question, "How many people are killed in an average-distance trip in this country?" Again for 2003, the fatality rate per billion vehicle kilometers (fewer countries report this data, yielding a smaller but no less enlightening graph):
Data is from this source. Note that overall nationwide kilometers driven can be difficult to estimate, and methods may vary among countries.
By this measure, Israel fares less well. Out of 23 countries reporting, Israel places 15th. On the other hand, we're in good company. France, Ireland, Japan, Austria and New Zealand are within 10 percent of us. Israel's fatality rate is 23 percent higher than that of the U.S. but 21 percent lower than that of Belgium. Compared with the top-ranked U.K., we're 52% worse.
As you expected, the roads in Israel are, on the average, not as safe as those in the U.S. But the gap is not enormous. Clearly there's plenty of room for improvement. Still, we are far from having the worst road safety record of any developed country.
If Israel's roads are more dangerous than America's, why are so many more Americans killed per capita than Israelis? Simple: Americans drive much more than Israelis - over two and a half times as much on average. Cars in Israel are much more expensive, as is fuel, and the average salary is significantly lower. So the average Israeli spends much less time on the road than the average American, and thus his exposure to the risks is much lower.
From the above statistics, we can compute the average distance driven per capita in each country:
All else being equal, the less people drive, the fewer accidents there will be!
As time goes by
I mentioned the need for improvement. As we saw last time, road safety in Israel is improving over the years. But other countries aren't standing still. How does Israel's record stand up over time?
Again, let's start with the per capita data:
Data is from here.Again, incorrect Israel 2003 data point in this source has been corrected.
Sorry about the messy graph, but the overall picture is clear enough. Per capita fatalities are improving in most countries, some faster than others. Many, you can see, have improved faster than Israel (in green); on the other hand, most had a much worse starting point. Israel was one of the countries with low per-capita fatality rates in 1988; it remains so today. In the interim, though, the gap has narrowed.
Let's simplify that data by looking at just the percentage improvement:
Israel's fatality rate has dropped by over 40% in fifteen years, while other countries in the middle of the pack also improved by 35-40%. The biggest improvements were over 50%, yet all of the countries with massive improvements were the ones with the worst starting points - they had the most room to improve.
To round out our picture, let's see how per-distance fatality rates have changed over the years:
Data is estimated from the graphs in this PDF file; I haven't been able to find the raw statistics. View the file to see the yearly improvements by country.
As the data show, Israel's safety record was poor back in 1980, about twice as bad as developed countries such as the U.S., the U.K. and Scandinavia. By 2003, though, as we saw above, Israel was only 52% worse than the U.K. Note also that all the countries in the sample had safer roads in 2003 than even the best of them had in 1980. This demonstrates the power of gradual improvements over time.
For a better focus on Israel's improvement over time, let's plot that on its own:
Israel is among the leaders here, with an improvement of over 70%, more than the U.K. As with the per-capita improvements above, the countries which improved the most (including Israel) were generally the ones with the worst starting points.
It's all about economics
How could Israel show one of the biggest improvements in per-distance fatalities, but place below average in improvement in per-capita fatalities? I don't have the statistics, but there's only one possible explanation: Compared to other countries, Israel has had a far greater increase in road use per capita. Israelis drive much more today than they did in 1980, and that has kept the per-capita fatality rate from falling nearly as fast as the per-kilometer rate.
As long as Israeli economic growth continues at a strong pace, this will continue to be the case. Economic growth has two effects: Society can afford more road safety, but individuals can also afford to drive more. As the roads get safer, the public's exposure to the risks of the road rise, moderating the impact of the safety improvements. I demonstrated this point in the previous posting, but the international comparison highlights it again.
To summarize: Israel's per-capita road fatality rate is lower than average for developed countries, while its per-kilometer fatality rate is higher than average. The discrepancy is due largely to Israel's low rate of road use. It's safer, on average, to drive a given distance in the U.S. than in Israel, but people do it far more often.
Most importantly, over time Israel, like other countries, is making substantial improvements in road safety, gradually closing the gap in per-distance fatalities. It would be great to improve even faster, but Israel's record is nothing to be ashamed of.
Which brings me to one last point, and one last graph. Note that most of the other countries in these comparisons are much wealthier than Israel per capita. Like everything else in the physical world, safety costs money: Better roads, better cars, better driver education, better enforcement. All else being equal, rich countries can afford more road safety than poor ones. We can see this by ranking countries by GDP per capita:
GDP figures from here.
Of the countries near Israel's level of economic development, Israel has the lowest rate of fatalities per kilometer driven. In fact, we're well within the range of road safety parameters achieved by some far wealthier countries, such as France, Austria, Japan, Ireland and Belgium. While there's still plenty of room for improvement, I'd say Israel makes a pretty good showing. By no means are we "worse than any other civilized country"!
I'm still thinking about what issues to address in future installments in this series. Suggestions are welcome.
Update (Sep. 26): In a comment, David Boxenhorn of Rishon Rishon asked for a graph related to the last one. I've taken the liberty of answering with what he really meant, not what he asked for. The question is: How safe are the roads in different countries relative to their GDPs? That is, if richer countries can afford more road safety, how well are countries doing considering how much they can afford?
"The amount of road safety" is the inverse of fatalities per kilometer: the average number of kilometers driven per fatality. The higher the figure, the safer the roads.
David asked for one graph; I'll give him two. First, a scatter plot of kilometers per fatality versus GDP per capita, along with a linear regression estimating the relationship between them. (I haven't tried any sophisticated econometric analysis; this is the standard regression function built in to my spreadsheet.)
The distance of each dot from the line indicates how much better or worse the country's safety record is relative to what one would expect based on its GDP per capita. The United States, Belgium, South Korea and Greece, for example, are significantly below the line, indicating a poor level of road safety relative to GDP. Significantly above the line are Israel, the UK, Finland, the Netherlands and Australia, among others, indicating a low fatality rate relative to national income.
To summarize this variation in a single statistic, we can divide the amount of road safety by GDP per capita. I've decided to call this the Bang for a Buck Index: Kilometers per fatality divided by GDP per capita. The higher the index, the more road safety "bang for the buck":
Israel has nothing to be ashamed of. Not at all.