U.S. Traffic Fatalities Plummet — But Why?

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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.

Graphic: TSTC.

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10 comments to U.S. Traffic Fatalities Plummet — But Why?

  • [...] Why Did Traffic Deaths Drop So Much Last Year? (MTR) [...]

  • [...] Why Did Traffic Deaths Drop So Much Last Year? (MTR) [...]

  • Larry Littlefield

    What is the age distribution of the drivers?

    The median age of the population is rising overall, and press reports indicate that due to economic and other factors young people are in less of a rush to get behind the wheel than in the past.

    New drivers are bad drivers, and new young drivers are worse.

  • Ed Throckmorton

    I agree with Mr. Littlefield. This is akin to the drop in crime a few years ago as the the bulk of the babyboomers aged out of the times in their lives when they are more likely to indulge in more risky behaviors. Babyboomers (I among them) have just now passed into the age where the bulk of them drive more responsibly. In a few years, they will pass into the age where they drive 20mph below the speed limit with a blinker all the time.

  • Lee Stevens

    If thats right insurance rates should be going done a lot but they never do. As far as the Baby boomers getting older at least every five years they should go in or online for a vision and reaction test perhaps verified by face scan on a web cam.they would push a key and have to make a pretty quick but reasonable reaction to say flashing lights if they fail be at least prohibited from driving on the freeways.My older brothers should not be on the freeway ever again the older one understands that, the younger not.We need slow speed electric bike and golf cart lanes that can handle bikes we know the days of cheap oil are OVER but because the politicians that never use mass tran make the decisions its like pulling hens teeth.

  • Eddie Flexter

    I’m betting that the sudden decrease is due to SUV’s becoming less fashionable, and safer (greener) sedans are back in demand. This has to be combined with all the unemployed people who aren’t driving in rush hour at the moment.

  • Daniel Hickock

    Had this many American lives been lost last year in Iraq or Afghanistan, the media outcry and public protest would’ve been unbelievable….
    The American public is in total denial as it concerns the carnage that occurs on US highways every year.
    The fact that the Media makes millions of dollars advertising automobiles is why car commercials contain language like “Closed course, professional driver, do not attempt.” Hardely unresolvable print at the bottom of their ads.
    Automobile death stats are all minimized and spun by media in such a way as to lead young car buyers and the public into thinking driving is somehow safer than it truly is.
    No less than 30,000 Americans have been killed in car crashes EVERY year since Nixon lowered the national speed limit to 55 MPH in 1974…
    “Speed Kills”
    Go figure.

  • Joe Di Medio

    One reason is because I woke there … up a tad; and they still won’t get all until I stick up their …. MORE distance with all speeds at all times, and slight reduction of speed to the right on multiple lane speeds is going to drop the loss of lives by 40%. Since 1993 they’ve had some work that’s going to coordinate the way we drive. We’re going to understand thee importance and a Delaware Valley Regional Safe Driving Commission is going to bring it to our attention. More distance with all speeds PLEASE…
    Joe A. Di Medio
    InvCFTS/1986

  • [...] And I have to ask how banning cell phones use would have prevented what happened to the Berry Family of the Briargrove area of Texas.  The father and mother were killed and their three children seriously injured when the driver of the other car lost control while looking for…a cell phone?  NO, a CD.  Now pair this with the FACT that Traffic Fatalities are falling to their lowest leve in 60 years – go here to read more -   http://blog.tstc.org/2010/09/23/u-s-traffic-fatalities-plummet-but-why/ [...]

  • [...] absolute change, and distracted driving deaths have not fallen as a share of total traffic deaths. U.S. Traffic Fatalities Plummet — But Why? | Mobilizing the Region As a ratemaker in the insurance business for seventeen of my thirty year career, I CAN tell you [...]

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