Traffic deaths have fallen to their lowest level since 1950, according to newly-released data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). 33,808 motorists, motorcyclists, pedestrians, and bicyclists were killed in traffic collisions in 2009, down 10 percent from 2008 and an incredible 22 percent from the recent peak of 43,510 in 2005. A preliminary Tri-State analysis shows that the drop is fairly evenly spread among victim type, with significant declines in driver and passenger deaths, and slightly smaller declines in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities (the one exception is motorcyclist deaths, which fell only slightly).
In the late 1980s, traffic fatalities plummeted for four straight years, largely as a result of increased seat belt use and concerted efforts to stop driving while under the influence. But the cause of this recent drop in fatalities is unclear. USDOT has put considerable energy into addressing driving while distracted, and credits a six percent drop in distracted driving deaths to those efforts. Certainly USDOT’s distracted driving campaign deserves praise for saving lives and for bringing national attention to this deadly problem. But if USDOT’s numbers are correct, the drop in distracted driving deaths accounts for only a fraction of the year-to-year absolute change, and distracted driving deaths have not fallen as a share of total traffic deaths.
Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is charged with tracking and reducing traffic deaths and injuries, told MTR they did not have a good explanation for the drop and that the distracted driving campaign was their top priority for the moment. But understanding why fatalities are falling so dramatically could allow policymakers to institutionalize whatever changes have contributed to the decline.
Tri-State spent some time earlier in the year examining NHTSA’s data sets and talking with researchers in the field to see if there was any obvious explanation for the drop. The consensus seems to be that multiple factors are contributing to the decline. Americans are driving less as a result of the spike in gas prices and the great recession, but this does not appear to explain the entire decline. In 2008, total vehicle miles traveled fell by 1.9 percent nationwide, but in 2009 VMT actually increased by 0.2%. There is some evidence to suggest that the recession and gas price fluctuations has changed the type of driving that Americans are doing — fewer recreational trips (which are more likely to involve alcohol), fewer trips by young drivers (who are more likely to be squeezed by higher gas prices and more likely to be out of work), slower travel speeds as drivers try to conserve gas, etc. Greater use of graduated licensing laws may also be making a dent, given that young male drivers are responsible for a disproportionate share of traffic deaths.
33,808 deaths on the nation’s roads are still far too many. Getting to the bottom of the recent decline in fatalities would allow for sustained progress toward a zero fatality goal.