U.S. Traffic Deaths Declined in 2023 But Remain Historically High

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has announced that traffic deaths declined by 3.6 percent in 2023. While this is good news, the United States continues seeing per capita vehicle fatalities at the highest rate witnessed since the mid 2000s.

In 2023, the NHTSA reported 40,990. This is in contrast with the 42,514 on-road deaths cited for 2022. However, the U.S. witnessed a fairly staggering decline in vehicular safety starting around 2015 and we’re still seeing metrics that would be considered high from before that period.

Assertions as to why tend to vary. Federal agencies have long kept their focus primarily on disparities seen following the pandemic, often citing 2019 as the moment when things changed. The reasoning given frequently suggests that roads became less crowded during lockdowns and that this encouraged motorists to speed under the assumption that there would be fewer police out to catch them. Automotive News certainly suggested as much in its coverage of the NHTSA report.

But there’s really no sound evidence to support such claims. While police were often encouraged to focus on enforcing social distancing during lockdowns, there’s little evidence to suggest that traffic enforcement was impacted. It’s likewise suspect that fewer people being on the road resulted in a higher instance of fatal accidents. All we can say for certain is that per capita traffic deaths and fatalities calculated by the number of the average number of miles vehicles traveled both saw major spikes in 2015, 2016, 2020, and 2021.

Your author has long theorized that the real culprit is distracted driving, declining road conditions, and changes in vehicle design. Increases in roadway fatalities seem to coordinate with the period in which smartphones became ubiquitous and automakers started standardizing touch controls and large infotainment screens. These are items that don’t have a great track record in terms of bolstering safety behind the wheel. We’ve also seen a major shift toward advanced driving aids that have a tendency to lull drivers in a false sense of complacency and don’t always function as advertised. Disparities in vehicle weight/height as many automakers shifted toward larger SUVs and electric vehicles with heavy batteries may have played another significant role.

To its credit, the NHTSA has begun to address the distracted driving aspect of the problem. In fact the released traffic data coincided with its latest campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving, called “Put the Phone Away or Pay” which tragically seems to focus almost exclusively on smartphone use.

“Distracted driving is extremely dangerous,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator Sophie Shulman stated. “Distraction comes in many forms, but it is also preventable. Our rebranded campaign reminds everyone to Put the Phone Away or Pay, because distracted driving can cost you in fines – or even cost your life or the life of someone else on the road.”

Why wouldn’t the NHTSA focus on other forms of distracted driving? Because its leadership is firmly aligned with the Vision Zero initiatives we’ve often bemoaned on this very website. While the concept does have some sound safety advice, such as keeping cyclists, pedestrians, and automobiles isolated from one another, it also champions a future where private vehicle ownership is kept to a minimum. The ultimate goal is to pivot most people into public transportation while converting automobiles and roads into closely monitored data-collection machines.

In fact, the NHTSA announced $350 million in available grants for any states, territories or tribal territories interested in standardizing the way they share data with the federal government by way of enabling full electronic data transfers. The initiative comes by way of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by Joe Biden in November of 2021.

But perhaps more telling is the NHTSA’s interest in the acceleration of novel safety technologies nobody but auto manufacturers and the government actually seems to like. The agency wants to see “through rulemakings for automatic emergency braking, including for pedestrians, on all new passenger vehicles, as well as heavy vehicles such as commercial trucks.”

It likewise wants to develop a “distraction research roadmap, informed by diverse expertise and public comment, that could support future updates such as Visual-Manual Driver Distraction Guidelines for In-Vehicle Electronic Devices.”

These are presumed to come into play as driver-monitoring devices (likely in-cabin cameras) that are already being mandated in places like Europe. Advocates suggest that such systems will help mitigate distracted driving, whereas opponents have stated they’re a massive invasion of a person’s privacy and not something they should have to deal with on what’s likely to be the second most expensive purchase of their life.

At the end of the day, the NHTSA still seems to be missing the mark. It’s going on the offensive against smartphones when the currently standard equipment in modern vehicles is arguably just as distracting. We even have studies suggesting that the implementation of touch controls are far less safe than older ways of interfacing with automobiles and some anecdotal evidence that driving aids are just stressing drivers out. However, infotainment systems and wonky advanced driving aids don’t appear to be a target — presumably because those items all come with data collection that both the federal government and automakers see as valuable to them.

If you think this is getting a little tin-foil at, the NHTSA states as much itself. It has proudly proclaimed itself as devoted to the “Safe System Approach and a Zero Fatalities vision” (Vision Zero) and the Department of Transportation had reiterated this with its National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS). That strategy includes “Allies in Action” which are basically a gaggle of like-minded government agencies, massive corporations, lobbying groups and NGOs all pushing their own agenda via public-private partnerships that seem wholly unacceptable when viewed from a historical perspective.

Members include, but are not limited to, the 5G Automotive Association (bent on networking all vehicles to a central data infrastructure), Alliance for Automotive Innovation (the largest automotive lobbying group in history), Amazon Web Services (one of the world’s largest data firms), American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, California State Transportation Agency, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers, Community Transportation Association of America, DoorDash, Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (there to represent insurance agencies), International Association of Chiefs of Police, ITS America (pushing connected cars), Jacobs Family Insurance, League of American Bicyclists, Lyft, Michelin Mobility Intelligence, Miovision, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, National Association of State EMS Officials, National Complete Streets Coalition/Smart Growth America, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, New Roads Logistics, Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, PeopleForBikes, Qualcomm Technologies, The Safe Operating Speed Alliance, State Farm, T-Mobile, Together for Safer Roads, Uber, United Parcel Service, and — perhaps most importantly — the Vision Zero Network.

Those are but a selection of entities that have all promised to work toward a shared vision of roadway safety. But there were also countless state and city transportation authorities, police associations, individual automakers, insurance agencies, and NGOs that are not listed. For those interested in the complete list, we direct you to the NRSS Allies in Action website.

While it seems plausible that these organizations could come together to enhance roadway safety, many involved have financial-driven agendas and most seem fixated on data aggregation without public consent. In fact, we already know that automakers have been selling customer data to insurance firms in what is now an established business model. It seems foolish to assume that the exclusive focus here is safety, especially considering the call to action is to fundamentally rethink, and subsequently redesign, American roadways and automobiles in a manner that promotes surveillance and gives less agency to drivers.

[Image: Tada Images/Shutterstock]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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6 of 65 comments
  • Lorenzo Lorenzo on Apr 02, 2024

    There are multiple components to traffic deaths: multi-car collisions, single vehicle accidents, drunk driver accidents, and pedestrian-vehicle accidents. Search for the different components and you'll see which classes of vehicle fatalities are going up. I'll get you started: last Summer I saw a headline: pedestrian traffic fatalities reached a 40 year high, over 7,500 pedestrians killed by cars, the highest since 1981.

    • See 2 previous
    • EBFlex EBFlex on Apr 03, 2024

      “My anecdata would guess pedestrian deaths are up because of distracted walking, earbuds and distracted drivers.”

      Its really that simple.

  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Apr 02, 2024

    The main reason traffic deaths are up is that they happen to other people.

    • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Apr 02, 2024

      That tin can we are sitting in isn't as safe as one thinks.

  • 6-speed Pomodoro I had summer and winter tires for a car years ago. What a pain in the butt. You've permanently got a stack of tires hogging space in the garage and you've got to swap them yourself twice a year, because you can't fit a spare set of tires in a sportscar to pay someone else to swap 'em.I'd rather just put DWS06's on everything. But I haven't had a sportscar in 8 years, so maybe that's a terrible idea.
  • ShitHead It kicked on one time for me when a car abruptly turned into my lane. Worked as advertised. I was already about to lean into the brake as I was into the horn.
  • Theflyersfan I look at that front and I have to believe that BMW and Genesis designers look at that and go "wow...that's a little much." Rest of the car looks really good - they nailed the evolution of the previous design quite well. They didn't have to reinvent the wheel - when people want a Mustang, I don't think they are going to cross-shop because they know what they want.
  • Theflyersfan Winters go on around Halloween and Summers go on in late March or early April. However, there were some very cold mornings right after the summers went on that had me skidding a bit due to no grip! I do enough (ahem) spirited driving on empty hilly/mountain roads to justify a set of sticky rubber, and winters are a must as while there isn't much snow where I am (three dustings of snow this entire winter), I head to areas that get a bit more snow and winter tires turns that light, RWD car into a snow beast!
  • SCE to AUX My B5.5 was terrible, but maybe the bugs have been worked out of this one.