How Americans Stack Up In Dying From Violence, War, Suicide, And Accidents

Now some new fodder for the gun-control debate that the horrid events in Connecticut suddenly stirred into a frenzy, though it had been snoozing through the daily drumbeat of murders in Oakland, CA, a few miles across the Bay from me, or in Richmond to the north, or really in any other city. The fodder is inconvenient, however. For both sides of the debate.

The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council released a troubling book-length report, U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health, that dug deeply into various studies and statistics of mortality for the year 2008, and came up with some uncomfortable conclusions—uncomfortable particularly if you’re male and under fifty: not only do Americans live less long than their counterparts in the developed world, but much of the damage happens at a younger age (more of that in the next post).

So the first thing I did was check out the category “deaths from intentional injuries” and its three subcategories, “self-inflicted injuries,” “war,” and “violence.” Grisly statistics, all of them.

As expected, the US has the most violence among the 17 “peer” countries in the study with 6.5 deaths per 100,000. Almost three times the rate of Finland, the next most violent country in the group with 2.2 deaths per 100,000 people, and over 15 times the rate of Japan with 0.43 deaths per 100,000 people. The third most violent country, Canada (1.6), is practically a bastion of safety for those Americans who make it across the border.

The apparently permanent element of US foreign policy, “war,” killed 0.44 Americans per 100,000 in 2008. It killed a lot fewer people in the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and France, and none in the remaining peer countries.

Deaths from self-inflicted injuries are an immense cultural tragedy in Japan—and its literature is replete with it. But the Japanese rate of 19.8 suicides per 100,000 people is not that much worse than that of the Finns (17.7). Americans are in the middle of the pack (10.3). The least suicidal are the Italians (4.5).

Combine the deaths from all intentional injuries—violence, war, and suicide—and the leader of the pack is … drumroll … Japan! With 20.2 deaths per 100,000 it is a hair deadlier than Finland (19.9), somewhat deadlier than the US in third place (17.3), but 3.6 times deadlier than the country of the Mafia, Italy, where people are least likely to die of intentional injuries (5.6).

The inconvenient part? Legally owning firearms in Japan is nearly impossible, and few people own them, legally or otherwise. The Japanese commit suicide by other means. And if the Japanese had more violent tendencies toward each other, they’d kill each other at a higher rate by other means, and they’d break the laws more often to own guns to use them against each other. But they don’t.

It’s not the absence of guns that makes the streets of Japan a safer place; it’s the outright refusal of practically all modern Japanese to resort to violence toward each other (they do have murderers or terrorists, just very, very few of them). In America, that attitude isn’t that common. Hence the scourge of violence.

Then there is the category of deaths from “unintentional injuries,” such as traffic accidents, poisonings, falls, fires, or drownings. Every country has its own nightmare, but overall, Finland is the most dangerous place with 38.6 deaths per 100,000. The US is in second place (35.5). The least dangerous? Japan (16.1), Germany (15.4), and the Netherlands (13.7).

Among deaths from unintentional injuries, traffic accidents are still the big killer in America—though the numbers have been cut in half since the 1970s. With 13.9 deaths per 100,000 people, America is significantly more dangerous than next-in-line Portugal (10.0) and 3.6 times more dangerous than Japan (3.8), the safest in the group. Of course, the US is a huge country where a lot of people drive a lot of miles on a daily basis. In Japan, most people—even those who own cars—rely on the vast and gleaming public transportation network to commute or get around, though the traffic on Tokyo’s expressways and the congestion in the streets might tempt you to think otherwise.

Poisonings—unintentional ones, that is!—kill Finns at a rate of 13.9 per 100,000 on par with traffic deaths in the US! Do they eat paint for breakfast? The US is next in line (8.9). By contrast, in Austria almost no one dies of poisoning (0.18). And Finns are just as likely to die from falls (13.9) than from poisoning, with the US (8.9) in second place, while France leads in the big catch-all category, other unintentional injuries (9.3).

The hapless leaders in total deaths from all injuries, intentional and unintentional, are Japan (36.3), France (38.2), then a big jump to the US (52.8), and another jump to number one, Finland (58.5). Deaths from traffic accidents, violence, war, and suicide are more common in the younger years (under 50) – one of the clues why much of the damage to Americans’ low life expectancy comes early in life.

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