What a Difference a Car Makes (and the difference is death)

greased lightning

Show me a headline that tells me you’re one of Denmark’s ace U.S. correspondents without telling me you’re one of Denmark’s ace U.S. correspondents.

Here’s the best-selling car in Europe and the best-selling in America. Americans are killing each other with giant cars.

That’s yesterdau’s Berlingske’s headline over an article by ace U.S. correspondent Mikkel Danielsen.

The Ford F-150 is the best-selling car in the United States.

The latest model is roughly the length of an M4 Sherman—the most widely used tank of World War II.

It is 1.83 meters longer than the best-selling car in Europe in 2022—a Peugeot 208.

And half a meter higher.


There’s even a graphic to go along with it:

The average car on American roads today is 430 kilograms heavier than in 1980 and has never had more horsepower, data from the EPA shows.

Did Mikkel Danielsen switch sides? Has he finally been seduced by the siren call of America’s open roads? Is this the opening of a love letter to the American ethos of bigger, better, faster, stronger?

It costs lives.


Should have seen that one coming.

I hope you have your math and logic hats on today, because you’re going to need both. Let’s start by looking at the only hard numbers Mikkelsen gives us to work with:

In stark contrast to Europe, more and more Americans are dying in traffic. In 2022, there were 42,915 traffic fatalities in the USA – 30 percent more than in 2010.


While the number of motorists killed has remained fairly stable over the past decade, the number of pedestrians killed has increased by 59 percent since 2009.


If you sit in a sedan, the risk of losing your life in a collision with a pickup truck is 2.5 times higher than if you collide with another sedan, a study from 2019 shows.

There aren’t any other numbers in the article, which is interesting in that the whole point of the article seems to be that there are more vehicular fatalities in America because Americans prefer to drive big, strong trucks rather than the dinky little wind-up toys beloved in Europe. Generally you need at least two sets of numbers to make a comparison: all Mikkelsen gives us is two American metrics and one presumably global metric. (Unless pickup trucks and sedans collide differently in different countries, which seems unlikely.)

Let’s take a look at the comparisons Danielsen couldn’t be troubled to make.

We’ll start with the basics: are Americans more likely than Danes to be killed in car accidents?

According to WorldLifeExpectancy.com, America experiences 11.1 traffic deaths per 100,000 citizens annually, compared to just 3.0 in Denmark.

Seems pretty open-and-shut, right? Americans are almost four times as likely as Danes to be killed on the road! Case closed.

But that’s not really a fair comparison, is it?

Thanks to research I’ve been doing on a recent project, I happen to know that Americans do a whole lot more driving than Danes. That means Americans have a lot more opportunity than Danes do to have accidents. The fewer the cars on the road, and the less they’re driven, the less likely there are to be accidents, right?

What happens if we factor that in?

Well, according to the World Health Organization, in 2018 Denmark had 0.73 traffic fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. America had 1.16, which is certainly worse, but a lot less worse than when we just took the counts per capita.

The same study shows that the safest country in the world in terms of vehicular deaths per mile (or kilometer) driven was Norway, with just 0.49. The most dangerous was Russia, with 18.9.

In fact, Denmark is the sixth safest nation in the world in this respect. America is tied with Spain as the twelfth. Granted, there are nine European countries (including the UK) with fewer vehicular deaths per mile traveled, but there are 44 countries in Europe, meaning there are 35 European countries with more.

Countries with higher per-mile fatalities than America include Japan, Belgium, Finland, France, Italy, Estonia, Korea… and so on, obviously. There are damn near 200 countries out there, so twelfth place isn’t so bad.

But here’s the interesting thing: according to ChatGPT, using data from Automotive News, Kelley Blue Book, JATO Dynamics, Statista, Car and Driver, and Auto Express, here’s a ranking of countries by the size of the average consumer car on the road, from biggest to smallest:

  1. United States
  2. Australia
  3. Canada
  4. United Arab Emirates
  5. Russia
  6. Saudi Arabia
  7. Brazil
  8. China
  9. United Kingdom
  10. Germany
  11. France
  12. Italy
  13. Spain
  14. Denmark
  15. Netherlands
  16. Norway
  17. Sweden
  18. Belgium
  19. Austria
  20. Switzerland

So virtually every single country in the world has smaller consumer cars, on average, than America, but only eleven countries have fewer traffic fatalities than America.

What’s more, the United Kingdom has larger cars than Denmark does, but fewer fatalities than Denmark.

All of which adds up to the simple but ineluctable conclusion that there is no apparent correlation between a country’s average car size and its vehicular fatality rates.

Before we get to the next point I’d like to make, I’ll repeat the third metric from Danielsen’s article so you don’t have to scroll back up:

If you sit in a sedan, the risk of losing your life in a collision with a pickup truck is 2.5 times higher than if you collide with another sedan, a study from 2019 shows.

That’s one way of looking at it: another would be that if you sit in a pickup truck, you’re much less likely to die than the sedan driver. Danielsen even acknowledges as much:

An advertising man at Chrysler, who in the 1990s was tasked with increasing the sale of SUVs, says in the book High and Mighty that consumers buy cars with “reptilian brains”.

“And the reptilian brain says that if there is an accident, you want the other driver to die,” he says.

Pickup trucks are safer–but only for those who sit in them. For everyone else, they are more dangerous.

Well, no, not everyone else. Just the people driving sedans into pickup trucks, or pedestrians struck by them.

(And who knew that the “reptilian brain” was the driving force behind wanting a car that would give you a better shot at surviving an accident? Or that it made you want the other driver to die? I mean, if I’m in an accident, I don’t want anyone to die—am I missing the reptilian part of my brain?)

Now, I mentioned pedestrians for a reason. That was Danielsen’s second metric: a dramatic rise in civilian fatalities that he blames on America’s big-ass cars.

Here’s a little more from ChatGPT:

The trend in pedestrian deaths per million population in Denmark and the United States has varied over time.

In Denmark, the trend has generally been declining over the past decade. In 2008, the pedestrian death rate per million population was 2.5, and by 2018 it had decreased to 1.1. This represents a decline of 56% over a 10-year period.

In the United States, the trend in pedestrian deaths has been increasing over the past decade. In 2008, the pedestrian death rate per million population was 1.3, and by 2018 it had increased to 1.9. This represents an increase of 46% over a 10-year period.

The sources cited by Chat GPT were America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Denmark’s Danish Road Directorate.

So Denmark had almost twice as many pedestrian deaths as America in 2008 (on a per capita basis), but now has only about two-thirds as many.

Asking ChatGPT for the same metrics based on kilometers instead of population, the only data I could get was 7.15 (pedestrian) traffic deaths per billion vehicle kilometers driven in America in 2019, versus 3.28 in Denmark in 2020.

So yes, there are more vehicular pedestrian deaths in America than in Denmark. That much we must concede.

Is it because of all those big F-150s running ramshod over America?

ChatGPT says:

While there may be multiple factors that contribute to the difference between these rates, some possible explanations include differences in urban design, infrastructure, and transportation policies. For example, Denmark has invested heavily in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, including separated bike lanes and pedestrian zones, which may help to reduce the risk of collisions between vehicles and pedestrians. Additionally, Denmark has implemented traffic calming measures, such as roundabouts and speed limits, which can reduce the severity of collisions when they do occur.

In contrast, the United States has historically prioritized automobile transportation, which has resulted in a higher reliance on cars, larger distances between destinations, and a greater emphasis on high-speed roadways. These factors may increase the risk of collisions between vehicles and pedestrians.

That’s not numeric data, so it could be wrong. But it’s certainly plausible. And sure, Danielsen’s hypothesis is also plausible.

But given all these facts and figures, and that last little ruminative text from ChatGPT, is it really fair to say that America’s bigger cars “cost lives?”

Is it fair or even appropriate to run a headline stating that “Americans are killing each other with giant cars?”

No… but damn, it sure does make a Dane feel good and smug about one more way in which Denmark is better than America, and that’s good enough for our ace U.S. correspondent and his editors.