Good News: We Died Less Often on the Road Last Year

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
good news we died less often on the road last year

After alarming increases in U.S. traffic fatalities in 2015 and 2016, data just released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows a decrease in the number of people who died in car crashes in 2017. A decrease, for sure, but still a shocking number: 37,133, or about one-third the population of West Palm Beach, Florida.

The same is true for Billings, Montana, as well as North Charleston, South Carolina and Manchester, New Hampshire.

The 1.8 percent drop in road deaths comes on the heels of a 6.5 percent increase in 2016 and an 8.4 percent spike in 2015. Have we suddenly become safer drivers? It seems so.

According to NHTSA data, 2017 saw 637 fewer crash fatalities than the year before, despite a 1.2 percent increase in the number of vehicle miles travelled (VMT). That bring’s last year’s fatality rate for 100 million VMT to 1.16, down from 2016’s 1.19. To put this into context, the fatality rate a decade ago was 1.33, despite a similar number of actual fatalities. Blame more people on the road today, racking up the nation’s total mileage.

In 2014, the fatality rate was 1.08 deaths per 100 million VMT, but the combination of cratering gas prices and low interest rates meant more Americans were buying cars and driving those vehicles longer distances. Still, total miles travelled do not tell the whole story. If that was the case, we’d have seen an increase last year.

It’s hard to tell just how much death-lowering credit we should give safer vehicle construction and fancy, automated safety aids that would have seemed like science fiction in the pre-recession era. The average car on American roads is still 11 years of age. Still, compared to stats from 2008, vehicle occupants have fallen from 39 percent of the fatality total to 36 percent. Light truck occupants fell from 29 percent to 27 percent in that time frame.

Interestingly, pedestrians and cyclists saw their share of the fatalities grow from 14 percent in 2008 to 19 percent last year. Over the past two years, we’ve seen growing concern among safety advocates about the dangers of both distracted driving and walking. Never before have drivers and pedestrians had so much opportunity to not look in front of them. Of course, while safety remains a two-way street, the onus is on the driver to stay alert.

Part of the problem seems to be that vehicles and pedestrians are increasingly living in close proximity to each other. The NHTSA’s stats reveal a demographic shift; a hollowing out of rural America. Vehicle miles travelled dropped 2.1 percent in rural areas over the past decade. In urban areas, it increased 13.1 percent. Correspondingly, since 2008, the rural fatality rate fell 16 percent, while the urban fatality rate (per 100 million VMT) rose 3.7 percent. Leaving mileage out of it, urban deaths rose 17.4 percent and rural fatalities sank 18 percent. Pedestrian fatalities in urban areas increased by a whopping 46 percent.

As for 2017, there’s more than just a slightly reduced death rate to be proud of. Better behavior was on display in many areas. Alcohol-related fatalities fell 1.1 percent to 29 percent of all deaths — the lowest percentage in recorded history (records started in 1982), while speeding-related deaths fell 5.6 percent. Pedestrian deaths fell by 1.7 percent and cyclist deaths dropped by 8.1 percent. As for distracted driving, that’s the causal factor in 8.5 percent of traffic fatalities, down from 9 percent in 2016.

The data also reveals a continuing trend showing kids these days (ages 16-24) are increasingly not going wild behind the wheel. Their grandparents, on the other hand, aren’t helping anything. Over the past decade, the number of seniors (aged 65-plus) involved in fatal crashes grew 29.1 percent, the result of another demographic shift.

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  • TomLU86 TomLU86 on Oct 04, 2018

    Amen, Mr. Walker and NMA! YOURS is the voice of reason. The death rate has generally been declining every year. Anecdotally, when I see acts of stupidity and texting, I am amazed the rate has continued to drop. The increase in pedestrians may be due to the increase in SUV/Cross-overs. The 'average' 3400 lb sedan in 1998 has been replaced by a higher riding 4500 lb crossover. It's easier to not see shorter people/children, and perhaps more importantly, being hit by 4500 lbs at torso level is probably worse than being hit at knee/thigh level by 3400 lbs. As to the 29% of deaths due to alcohol being preventable, a large portion of them are, but not all. A driver who is 0.10 might have been involved in the accident anyway. Just wait till they legalize pot... Distracted driving is hard to measure. That is MY biggest concern when I'm on the road.

  • Mike-NB2 Mike-NB2 on Oct 06, 2018

    I'm confused by the juxtaposition of the title and the top photo. If you owned a Dodge Journey wouldn't you be looking for an accident to get it written off???

  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.
  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !
  • VoGhost It's very odd to me to see so many commenters reflexively attack an American company like this. Maybe they will be able to find a job with BYD or Vinfast.