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In 2004, there were 21.6 million licensed drivers in Canada1 among a population of 25.8 million people aged 16 or older.2 They operated over 25 million registered vehicles.3 Most of these vehicles (76%) were cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles for on-road use, while a smaller proportion were farm, construction and off-road vehicles.
Despite the ever-increasing number of drivers and vehicles, fatal collisions and those resulting in personal injury have steadily declined over the past 20 years.1 Even so, motor vehicle accidents remain a leading cause of death for young people.
From 2000 through 2004, there were 44,192 accidental deaths in Canada; 32% of them (14,082) were the result of motor vehicle accidents (MVAs). In the 15 to 24 age group, MVA deaths (3,417) accounted for 70% of all accidental deaths (4,895).
Many competing factors increase or decrease the risk of motor vehicle accidents and injuries. Technological advances such as anti-lock braking, airbags, improved seat belts and child restraints make vehicles safer.4-6 Legislation and enforcement of speed limits, blood alcohol levels, seat belt use, bicycle helmets for children, and other safety measures are intended to protect vehicle occupants, pedestrians and cyclists.7 Changing social norms discourage drinking and driving.8
However, the motor vehicle safety picture is not entirely positive. While seat belt technology has improved and legislation mandates their use, many adults still fail to "buckle up"—themselves or their children.9 Related problems include car and booster seats that are incorrectly installed or placed in high-risk positions (front passenger seat, for example), and children who are not using age- or size-appropriate restraints.5 The widespread use of cellphones, navigation systems and other telematic devices add to driver distraction.10, 11 Driving under the influence of alcohol, although declining, continues to be a problem, particularly among young drivers.12 Driving under the influence of cannabis is a related concern.13 Rural roads pose another threat—in 2004, 62% of collisions resulting in a fatality were in rural areas.1 Weather frequently plays a part in motor vehicle accidents, as does human error such as fatigued and drowsy driving.14 "Road rage," a term first coined in 1988,15 which describes "uncontrolled anger that results in violence or threatened violence on the road,"16 reflects an extreme form of human error.
This study reviews motor vehicle accident deaths in Canada from 1979 through 2004, with a more in-depth look from 2000 onwards. Data are from the Canadian Vital Statistics - Death Database which is composed of information from death certificates. Pedestrian and pedal cyclist fatalities are included if a motor vehicle was involved in the accident. Traffic and non-traffic (off-road) deaths are reported in the study.
Decline since 1979
Over the past 25 years, the annual number of Canadians who died from motor vehicle accidents dropped by 52%, from 5,933 in 1979 to 2,875 in 2004 (Table 1). There were 97,964 MVA deaths over this period, the majority (71%) involving males.
In 1979, the MVA crude death rate was 24.5 deaths per 100,000 population, 35.9 and 13.2 deaths per 100,000 for males and females, respectively (Table 1, Figure 1). By 2004, these rates had dropped drastically to 12.8 per 100,000 population for males and 5.2 for females, for an overall rate of 9.0 deaths per 100,000 population. The close correspondence between the crude and age-standardized rates (Table 1) indicates that factors other than the changing age structure of the Canadian population between 1979 and 2004 account for the decline.
Number and rates (crude and age-standardized) of motor vehicle accident deaths, by sex, Canada, 1979 to 2004
Death rates by province and territory
From 2000 through 2004, there were 14,082 MVA deaths in Canada, for an average annual average death rate of 9.0 per 100,000 population (Figure 2). Rates varied across the country, with the highest in the Yukon (16.4 per 100,000 population). Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia also had rates above the national figure. Only Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador had rates below the Canada level, at 7.0 and 7.8 per 100,000 population, respectively.
Average annual rate of death from motor vehicle accident, by province or territory, Canada, 2000 to 2004
A leading cause of death for teens and young adults
From 2000 through 2004, MVA deaths accounted for 1.3% of all deaths in Canada. However, almost one in five deaths (17.3%) of people younger than 30 resulted from a motor vehicle accident.
The average annual MVA death rate for 15- to 24-year-olds was 16 deaths per 100,000 population, significantly higher than the rate for all age groups combined (9 deaths per 100,000 population) (Figure 3). Seniors (65 or older) also had a rate above the national level at 13 deaths per 100,000 population. Rates were lower for the remaining age groups, especially those younger than 15 (3 deaths per 100,000 population). Regardless of age group, males consistently had higher death rates than did females.
Average annual rate of death from motor vehicle accident, by age and sex, Canada, 2000 to 2004
Most deaths vehicle occupants
From 2000 to 2004, more than a third (38%) of MVA deaths were occupants (drivers or passengers) of a car, van, truck, bus or other motor vehicle. Pedestrians accounted for 12% of MVA deaths, followed by motorcyclists (6%) and drivers of all-terrain or other off-road vehicles (5%). Pedal cyclists and operators of agricultural vehicles made up 2% and 1% of deaths, respectively. For the remaining third of the MVA deaths that occurred in that period (4,705), the deceased's mode of transport was not specified in the death certificate.
Looking specifically at the 5,388 deaths among occupants of motor vehicles, 1,499 (28%) were to people aged 15- to 24-years. Between 2000 and 2004 the average annual rate for this cause was over 3 deaths per 100,000 population (Figure 4). However, the rate for 15- to 24-year-olds was 7 deaths per 100,000, significantly higher than for any other age group. Young men were particularly at risk, with a rate of 10 deaths per 100,000, compared with 4 per 100,000 for women of the same age (data not shown).
Average annual rate of death as occupant of motor vehicle or pedestrian, by age group, Canada, 2000 to 2004
Deaths of senior pedestrians
A relatively large proportion of pedestrians killed in MVAs were seniors. Between 2000 and 2004, 1,746 pedestrians died in accidents involving motor vehicles; over a third of them (636) were 65 or older. Seniors' average annual death rate from this cause was over 3 per 100,000 population, compared with less than 1 per 100,000 for people in the under-65 age range (Figure 4).
Deaths peak in warmer months
From 2000 to 2004, an average of just under 8 Canadians died each day in motor vehicle accidents (Figure 5). However, the daily number of MVA deaths fluctuated across the seasons. For the most part, the daily average rose during the warmer months and was lowest from January through April. Deaths peaked in August 2004, with an average of more than 10 fatalities each day. The lowest number in any month was in March of the same year, with a daily average of 5 fatalities.
Deaths resulting from motor vehicle accidents have declined since 1979. Despite this, they remain a leading cause of death for young people.
There are opportunities to lower the risk of motor vehicle accidents and the injuries and deaths that result. Measures that help prevent accidents and those that minimize harm in the event of an accident are two approaches. Strategies that fall in the first category include reducing distractions from cell phones and other telematic devices, as well as addressing driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Adult seat belt use and age- and size-appropriate restraints for young people fall in the second category. Many strategies aimed at motor vehicle occupants could also benefit more vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. Younger and older motorists, as well as senior pedestrians, are particularly at risk with higher than average death rates.
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