In America, drivers don't try to kill other drivers. In Australia, drivers try not to kill other drivers.
After almost three months here, I've decided that this difference in attitudes is the biggest thing that separates these two cultures.
America was built on a culture of individualism, sometimes called "rugged individualism." In Australia, society is characterized by a much greater degree of communitarianism.
The place of traffic fatalities in the two countries provides a nice example.
There are about 32,000 traffic-related fatalities in the US per year, about 10 per 100,000 population. I think if you were to ask most American drivers about this figure, they would probably answer, "These things happen." There is virtually no concern in the general population about these deaths, and there is certainly little or no evidence that road dangers influence the manner in which people drive.
In Australia, there are about 1200 deaths per year, or about 5 per 100,000 population.
A two-fold difference is pretty significant, and Australia would certainly be entitled to rest on its laurels. But folks here understand that there is no virtue in benchmarking yourself to a substandard norm. Instead, as illustrated by the a program of the Victorian Transport Accident Commission, they've set an objective of zero. The agency explains:
At the heart of Towards Zero is the belief that human health is paramount to all else. It acknowledges that, as people, we all make mistakes. However, when mistakes happen on our roads they can cost us our lives or cause serious injury. That's because our bodies aren't made to absorb the forces of high impact speeds. We are fragile, and there's only so much physical force we can withstand and this is why we need to build a safer road system. Improving the safety of our roads, our speeds, our vehicles and our people will improve safety for everyone. The move Towards Zero is a collaborative effort between everyone in the community. Together, we can build a safer road system and help change road safety for the better.
A campaign is just a campaign if it does not take hold in the minds and behavior of the target audience. I'm here to report that as I drive on the highways and streets of Victoria, I see it in action. When you are on the highway, and the speed limit is 100 km/hour, people go at 100 km/hour. In the US, when the speed limit is 60 mph, the expectation is that you will go above that. In Victoria, you don't see people engaged in a "Grand Prix" form of driving, weaving in and out of lanes to pull ahead of cars in front of you. As a result, automobile travel is a lot less stressful and more comfortable, not to mention safer.
In talking with friends here, they acknowledge that very strict enforcement of the speed laws--and high penalties--keeps your mind on doing the right thing. But they also follow up by saying that they are pleased that such is the case. Why, they say, should people die when they don't have to.
In the US, if we think about the issue at all, we tend view those who might die as "somebody else," and we feel no sense of responsibility towards those potential victims. In Australia, when they think about the issue, they view those who might die as a member of their community, and they feel a great sense of responsibility in minimizing the potential for harm.
In a future column, I will explore whether this communitarian view of Australian society carries over into health care--whether there is a comparable commitment "towards zero" with regard to preventable harm in hospitals.