By on October 3, 2018

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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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15 Comments on “Good News: We Died Less Often on the Road Last Year...”

  • avatar

    You mean texting drivers, 400/600 horsepower sedans/trucks/sports cars, over-reliance on “auto-pilots”, and higher speed limits haven’t killed us all as predicted by the safety nazis?

  • avatar

    Reading an incomplete transcript of a chart of data, with color commentary besides, without actually seeing the chart of data makes my brain hurt.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Not to sound too pious, but that 29% of alcohol-related deaths is totally preventable.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, you do sound a bit pious.
      And all accidents are preventable but still are.
      But then again, maybe they are not and this is all an exercise in futility.
      Sleep deprivation.
      Anxiety and stress.
      Human failure.

  • avatar

    So in the 60’s, with a fraction of the cars and a fraction of the miles driven, 40,000 deaths.yr was a normal number. Today, the death rate looks a fraction of back then.

    We still haven’t effectively tackled impaired of distrated driving though.

    • 0 avatar

      It will almost entirely disappear with autonomous vehicles (I say almost entirely but try your damnedest to make something foolproof and a fool will prove you wrong every time).

      Of course that begs the question what happens to places like Virginia where many small towns rely entirely on ticket revenue to cover shortfalls in the budget? I wonder if the state will raise income and property tax to replace the lost ticket income or will they just invent new laws like “riding in a vehicle under the influence” or raise the cost of say a defective equipment ticket or whatever.

      Some time ago Virginia introduced the civil remdial fee as an extra levy on state residents and applied up to 2500 dollars in additional fines for misdomeaner and felony offenses – but it proved so unpopular it was struck down since somebody from out of state could commit the same crimes and end up paying less.

      Instead Virginia just buried it in misdomeanor and felony offesenses so they could catch everybody. A reckless in Va can cost somebody up to 2500 dollars plus court costs if the judge is so inclinded and they need the money bad enough.

  • avatar

    Fatalities are an easily-digested, politically palatable metric, but what about accident rates, and what about injuries? In the 90’s there were some noises made about airbags causing injuries in addition to, or sometimes entirely in place of, any harm the occupants would’ve otherwise suffered. One person a couple degrees of separation away from me had a broken nose and some wrist damage from hitting a parking lot pylon at low speed. IIRC the damage didn’t even reach the radiator. Airbags were later revised and detuned, but I wonder whether there are any indications – besides my own intuition – that A-pillar airbags and other reductions in visibility increase the chances of an accident occurring in the first place?

    Give it another few years and we’re going to start seeing accidents caused by stuff like a blind spot monitor indicator light randomly burning out.

    • 0 avatar

      The focus is on deaths because (a) they are the most serious consequence of crashes and (b) the data is easier to collect.

      Virtually every vehicle fatality is documented. Many non-fatal crashes are not.

  • avatar

    “It’s hard to tell just how much death-lowering credit we should give safer vehicle construction and fancy, automated safety aids”

    It isn’t hard to tell. Fatalities have fallen for decades because of passive safety.

    The bad traits that humans have that cause crashes don’t change much over time. Those who understand safety argue for passive safety because it works.

  • avatar

    At a rate of 1.16 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, driving is incredibly safe – NOT a crisis. If you are in a vehicle for about 15,000 miles per year, that means you will be in a crash involving a fatality about once in every 5,700+ years.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • avatar

    The stats get really fuzzy when you include pedestrian deaths in the numbers. I’ve read several accounts where these deaths have risen sharply increasing the overall numbers. In order to disect where the problem areas lie, a breakdown in the types of deaths should be examined before overall assumptions are made. The ignorant public can’t interpret actual data and will fall for the 2016 headlines of “traffic deaths spike”, and then assume it’s all for distracted driving.
    It’s good to see the overall numbers went down this year.

  • avatar
    Leonard Ostrander

    No news here. The number of traffic fatalities per 100 million miles traveled has been on the decline for the last 100 years with frequent upward blips along the way.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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???

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