NHTSA Touts Decrease in Traffic Deaths, But 32,719 Ain’t No Vision Zero

Twenty-four-year-old Taja Wilson was killed near the Louisiana bayou in August when a driver swerved on the shoulder where she was walking. Noshat Nahian, age 8, was killed in a Queens crosswalk on his way to school in December by a tractor-trailer driver with a suspended license. Manuel Steeber, 37, was in a wheelchair when he was killed in Minneapolis while trying to cross an intersection with no crosswalk or traffic signal on a 40-mph road. One witness speculated that Steeber must have had a “death wish.”

Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a motorist on his way to school in Queens with his sister, Nousin Jahan Nishat, 11. Photo: ##http://accidentsinus.com/Victims/detail.aspx?Victim=ea990b8d-8312-4526-bf61-b326706ffdf9##Accidents in US##
Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a truck driver on his way to school in Queens with his sister.
Photo: Accidents in US

These are just three of the 4,735 pedestrians killed in 2013. Believe it or not, that was an improvement, down 1.7 percent from the year before.

New data [PDF] from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that overall, traffic fatalities went down in 2013 — reassuring news after a disturbing uptick in 2012. But 32,719 preventable deaths on the country’s streets is still an alarming death toll. Tens of thousands of lives would be saved if the United States achieved a traffic fatality rate comparable to the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan.

The Vision Zero movement is growing around the country, but advocates are still trying to come up with a way to bring the movement for zero deaths to the national level, instead of just city by city.

Moreover, though the overall situation improved in 2013, beneath the surface there were some disconcerting trends and facts:

  • Bicyclists (categorized as “pedalcyclists” in NHTSA reporting language) were the only group to experience more deaths in 2013 than 2012. With more and more people riding bicycles, the 743 cyclists killed in 2013 probably still represents fewer deaths per miles ridden, but it also reveals a blind spot in many places in the country that have yet to adapt their roads to the reality of more people biking.

  •  “At 21,132 fatalities, the number of passenger vehicle occupants who died in 2013 is the lowest on record,” NHTSA announced. But the trend is not that good for people outside of cars, who account for a growing share of all traffic deaths. “Non-occupant” fatalities made up 13 percent of the total in 2004 and 17 percent in 2013.
  • While total injuries are down, the fact that 49,000 fewer people were injured in traffic in 2013 than in 2012 is “not statistically significant,” according to NHTSA. Why? Because the annual number of traffic injuries is shockingly high — more than 2.3 million.
  • The number of fatalities in 2013 looks like an improvement in relation to 2012, but it is still higher than the total in 2011.
  • Alcohol is involved in 31 percent of traffic deaths. And 24 percent of drunk drivers who killed someone in 2013 had had their licenses suspended or revoked in the past three years.
  • NHTSA’s report doesn’t even mention distracted driving, but the National Safety Council reports that cell phone use causes up to 26 percent of crashes in the U.S.
  • Deaths related to large trucks are up 14 percent, with the vast majority of that increase comprised of “non-occupants” who are killed by the drivers of large trucks. Meanwhile, Congress just rolled back safety rules designed to keep tired truckers off the road.

NHTSA numbers only count deaths on public roadways. Deaths on private roads or parking lots and children killed when motorists back over them in driveways all go uncounted in NHTSA’s figures. Children are disproportionately represented in those uncounted deaths.

The NSC, which does include these “non-traffic” deaths in its count (along with other minor differences) hasn’t released final numbers yet for 2013 but its preliminary count was 35,200 — 7.5 percent higher than NHTSA’s total.

  • I understand why this is not an even comparison but about 3,000 people died on 9/11 and the country has spent trillions of dollars in response. If you averaged out the number of traffic deaths since 2001 across 50 states, it’d be the equivalent of each state experiencing the death toll equivalent of three 9/11’s.

    Can you imagine how many lives could be saved* if there was a remotely similar dedication of resources to preventing traffic deaths?

    *or quality of lives improved by preventing injuries.

  • Dave Weckl

    Do some research…there is (has been for a decade) to adopt a Toward Zero Deaths vision /goal. Many State DOTS already have this goal. Unfair of you to suggest the only effort underway is from the cities.

  • thielges

    The difference is that the effort spent to combat post-9/11 terrorists is directed towards “them”. You know, wild eyed fanatic foreign radicals.

    Compare that to an effort spent to reduce street fatalities. Speed cameras, road diets, stricter laws, and better enforcement. Those measures are directed towards “us”, the typical American motorist.

    It is much more palatable to get raving mad and go to extremes to combat “them” than it is to do the same regarding “us”. Actual data about the number of people killed and injured don’t matter. What is important is that weare not the problem, it is them.

  • davistrain

    Like many readers of these blogs, I have wondered why over 30,000 traffic deaths appears to be “tolerable” to the American public. As someone noted, it’s the same number of casualties that would be tallied if a loaded jetliner crashed every other day. But I see very little of the outrage that would occur if plane crashes killed that many. Part of the problem is that car travel is too “ordinary”; it’s something that to most Americans (outside of maybe half a dozen big cities) is an integral part of daily life, while flying is a “special occasion”. Traffic deaths would decline if driver licensing standards were stricter, and state departments of motor vehicles were faster “on the draw” when it came to suspending or revoking a license, but I remember one commenter saying something like, “Taking away a person’s driver’s license is like sentencing them to house arrest.” It seemed to take decades to get drunk driving punishments increased, something that might be due to our legislatures having more than their share of boozehounds in their ranks. Some years ago I wrote an article about how automobile use plays to certain less than admirable human characteristics: A) Impatience–Americans are especially noted for being in a hurry; we don’t want to wait for a bus or train, and a bike is too slow. We want to get where we’re going ASAP. B) Selfishness–we don’t want to share a ride, especially on a bus where there might be people we wouldn’t normally associate with. We want our cars, with our music or talk show on the radio. C) Laziness–we like to jump in the car and take off. No walking to the bus stop or train station. If we’re in a hurry, just step on the gas, no extra effort like a bicycle requires. If 30,000 plus of our fellow Americans won’t be around to greet the new year, that’s a shame, but convenience seems to outweigh safety here.

  • Lou_Lombardo

    Brava Tanya!

  • Lou_Lombardo

    Please provide list of States with Vision Zero goals.

  • Joe R.

    So long as we cling to the notion that nearly everyone should be able to drive an automobile, we’ll continue to have carnage at this level. That’s the heart of the matter. There’s no scenario other than 100% self-driving cars which would allow most people car travel while also keeping deaths and injuries very low.

    The surprise to me isn’t the level of carnage but why we as a society willingly tolerate it. After all, these numbers represent one 9/11 every 5 weeks or so. If any other form of transportation had even 1000 deaths in a year, the NTSB would shut it down until it could be fixed. Perhaps that’s what should be done. Declare the roads and streets disaster areas, close them, and have a think tank find some solution. Politically we’ll probably need non-electeds find an answer (be it much more strict licensing, or mandatory self-driving cars). Any elected official who voted for such measures would be promptly voted out of office, with the measures immediately repealed by the next person. Better if the NTSB or some other body finds an answer. Traffic deaths should be so rare than they make national headlines when they happen. Nearly 100 people killed per day in automobile accidents is a disgrace, as well as a massive drain on national productivity. So is the billions of hours spent sitting in traffic jams. Stricter licensing or mandatory self-driving cars would solve both issues simultaneously.

  • Joe Shabadoo

    where are you seeing 32,719 deaths? It’s not in the PDF you linked to

  • dave weckl
  • Lou_Lombardo

    Thanks Dave. But I could not find the list of States with a Vision Zero Goal. Is there such a list?

  • anon_coward

    technological solutions will never work against human nature. no law can stop people from driving erratically, drunk, on drugs, too fast for traffic, run red lights, etc

  • davistrain

    As I recall, the NTSB can investigate and make recommendations, but it has no “enforcement” powers. There’s another bureau which, as I recall, has the power to withhold highway improvement and/or repair funds if states do not comply with its edicts. Back during one of the “gas crunches” of the 1970s, this bureau mandated 55 mph maximum speeds throughout the US. Any state not enforcing the limit would forfeit federal funds. I remember when Consumer Reports applauded the lower speed limit, and someone from the Lone Star State wrote in, “Fifty-five may be OK on your New York parkways, but driving 55 through West Texas is like Chinese water torture.”

  • izzy stripes

    demons are not evil,they’re not bad in any way. please go to joy of satan . com and exposingchristianity .com for truth. you need no money it’s free just have an open heart and a little free time?..

  • neroden

    Federal Highway Administration is the one with the power to withhold highway money.

  • neroden

    Well, it’s not really an even comparison, because pretty much no money at all has actually been spent to prevent incidents like 9/11 from happening again. (OK, there’s the strong, lockable cockpit doors, which cost, what, a few million dollars nationwide?)

    Instead, 9/11 was used as an excuse for all kinds of other pet projects of the government at the time. It’s as if complaints about traffic deaths were used as an excuse to invade China “becuase the cars were manufactured there”.

    (Note: I know that practically no US cars are manufactured in China. Please reference the history of the invasion of Iraq if you don’t get the joke.)

  • neroden

    Actually, “drivers license” laws can in fact stop people from doing all those things. If people’s licenses are revoked for dangerous driving, it becomes a hell of a lot harder for them to get behind the wheel.

  • ahwr
  • Deaths caused by large trucks were up by 14% however the number of deaths this year is only roughly 2/3rds of the number of deaths in heavy truck accidents in 1979 when there were only half as many heavy trucks on our highways and the Federal 55 mph speed limit had been imposed for five years at that point.

    Today’s trucking industry runs about 30% more mileage per average truck than the trucking industry did in 1979 in-part because of the difference in speed limit today too.

    My guess is that most of the increase in trucking industry fatalities this year can be attributed to two causes.

    #1 is the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession which is putting more trucks back on our highways. Our recovering economy is also putting more cars back on our highways, as congestion is up too.

    The #2 reason is the polar vortex-induced extra-harsh winter in the Great Lakes, Central US, and Northeastern US during the winter of 2013-2014 that was much worse than the previous winter.

    An additional 3rd issue that may be a problem is that large numbers of Baby Boom age truckers are retiring, so the average experience level of heavy truck drivers on our roads today I would guess would be falling too.

    Any other ideas, such as the percentage of bicycle riders that think it should be OK for them to run stop signs and red lights, ride the wrong way on one-way streets, ride on sidewalks, or fail to signal turns or stops either?

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