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Princess Diana’s death may mean fewer subsequent traffic fatalities in France

Jul 13, 2017

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A new analysis published in the American Journal of Public Health compares traffic deaths in France and the United States over four decades, and suggests Princess Diana’s death on August 31, 1997 may have changed traffic safety policies and significantly reduced traffic deaths in France.

“During the decades before Princess Diana’s death, the two countries had nearly the same patterns in traffic fatalities,” says the lead scientist, Dr. Donald Redelmeier, a physician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “In the years afterward, a further 60 per cent reduction occurred in France compared with a 30 per cent reduction in the US.” The absolute difference equates to 242,076 additional deaths in the US overall.

The project examined data between 1977-2015 creating a comprehensive database of 1,950,554 traffic deaths (including Princess Diana). For the US, data were from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For France, data were from L’Observatoire National Interministeriel de la Securtie Routiere. Additional analyses examined vehicle speeds, impaired driving, protective equipment, and driving distances.

One suggested reason contributing to differences in mortality is vehicle speed. The maximum highway speed limit is nearly the same in the two countries (80mph and 130km/h respectively). The US; however, has no standard limit for urban areas whereas France has a maximum of 50km/h (30mph) for city streets. In addition, photo-radar speed enforcement is deployed in only 15 US states but is now widespread in France.

A second large difference is impaired driving. Drunk driving arrests are twice as common in the US than France (3.5 vs. 1.6 per 1000 population annually) despite alcohol consumption being higher in France. One underlying policy is random sobriety checkpoints that are illegal in 12 US states but accepted throughout France.

The use of protective equipment and practices is another distinction. Overall, 31 US states have repealed universal motorcycle helmet laws whereas helmets are mandatory for all motorcyclists in France. Seatbelts are optional for back-seat occupants in 22 states, whereas they are compulsory for all vehicle occupants in France. Mobile phone bans do not apply in 36 US states whereas they are universal for all drivers in France. Radar detectors are legal in the US whereas they are illegal throughout France.

Recent years show the significantly different paths followed by the two countries for traffic safety. These changes reflect leadership rather than reductions in mobility or new technology. “We estimate practices in France have the potential to perhaps save $100 billion for the US each year.” Says Dr. Redelmeier, “We will never know the repercussions for Americans had Princess Diana died on the streets of New York City.”

For media inquiries

Laura Bristow, Communications Advisor
Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre
416-480-4040