More Driving, More People Dying on America’s Streets

On Friday, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration released new data [PDF] showing that traffic deaths are up. Up quite a bit.

More driving, more problems. Photo: Wikipedia
More driving, more problems. Photo: Wikipedia

During the first nine months of 2015, 26,000 Americans were killed in traffic collisions — a 9.3 percent increase over the same period in 2014. According to Autoblog, that would work out to the highest one-year percentage increase in traffic deaths since the 1940s if the trend continued through the end of 2015.

The most obvious reason is that cheap gas is prompting people to drive more. Indeed, during the first three quarters of 2015, drivers logged 80 billion more miles than the same period the previous year — a 3.5 percent increase.

That means the increase in driving doesn’t account for all the increase in fatalities. One theory, courtesy of David Levinson at the University of Minnesota, is that when gas prices fall, collisions rise faster than mileage because people who don’t ordinarily drive much, like teenagers, start driving more.

In its messages, NHTSA keeps hammering “behavioral” issues, like drunk driving and failing to wear seatbelts — which certainly are big contributors to traffic fatalities. But when you get down to it, driving itself is the source of risk, and NHTSA won’t address the systemic factors that compel Americans to drive instead of taking transit, walking, or biking.

You’ll never see NHTSA mention the disaster that is low-density, single-use zoning, which lengthens the distances people have to travel in cars. Or the way state DOTs keep building bigger highways even though they don’t maintain the roads they already have.

In a statement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the new data “is a signal that we need to do more,” but he did not specify what, exactly, we need to do more of.

  • AndreL

    NHTSA is not in a position, nor does it have a mandate, to address urban form or zoning. Its job is to take the built environment as it is, and then evaluate the safety of surface transportation.

    It is absurd to suggest NHTSA does otherwise, it would be like expecting or demanding that FAA says the solution for less deaths on airplanes is for people to hunker down and stop taking business or holiday trips that require flying.

    This is not, of course, to say that there aren’t problems with the urban form, but this idea of “move as little as possible to avoid being killed” is not realistic.

  • martin28

    @andrelot:disqus If people talking on airplanes was the cause of increased deaths, then it would certainly be the FAA’s business to offer a solution—so your comment makes no sense.

  • Laurence Aurbach

    Just about all advanced countries have a better traffic safety record than the United States on a per capita basis. People spend a lot less time in cars and the streets are designed to be safer and more comfortable for walkers. It’s entirely realistic to say U.S. cities could reduce crash risk if they moved closer to that model.

  • Steven Goodridge

    One might argue that walking, bicycling, and mass transit are also transportation, so a reduction in high speed automobile use does not necessarily mean less transportation. Why should NHTSA assume that transportation safety is only about car use?

  • First of all, what you argue isn’t true. Urban form is only one part of the equation. Designing roads for lower speeds, and improving safety for other modes *is* under the NHTSA purview in the same way that the FAA can recommend changes to all aspects of air travel, not just the actual airplanes and the pilots.

    And this would actually affect the urban form as well, keep in mind, variables do not change in isolation.

    Second, yes, it may be that the NHTSA doesn’t have the ability to directly change the urban form, but they can easily list that as a contributing cause. To argue that the urban form is what is is, and ignore the effects it has on transportation because “its not our problem”, is the very definition of pointless government bureaucracy which people hate so much.

  • AndreL

    Safety of public transportation systems such as subways and light rail are the domain of FRA or NTSB.

    Once again: I’m not saying high-speed arterials without sidewalks are the greatest thing to have, or that disjoint suburban subdivisions are the optimal city form. I’m just saying NHTSA should stay shy of non-transportation aspects of cities.

  • p_chazz

    Just about all advanced countries are much more densely populated than the US, which means that the need for car trips is proportionally lesser and the mortality rate accordingly lower.

  • Oemissions

    making pedestrians and cyclists share passage ways with automobiles was just plain stupid thoughtless design

  • yermom72

    Uber issued a statement denying all liability.

  • murphstahoe

    Lies damn lies and statistics.

    San Francisco is more densely populated than just about all advanced countries, and has a worse traffic safety record. Using the fact that Wyoming exists to say we cannot compare the US to the Netherlands is ridiculous.

  • Laurence Aurbach

    A few answers:

    One, even comparable low-density countries like Canada and Australia have a better traffic fatality record than the U.S. on a per capita basis.

    Two, it’s true that large areas of the U.S. are uninhabited. And millions live in rural areas. Good for them! Everybody should be able to live where they want to. The point is, millions want to live in walkable urban places but the supply is far short of the demand.

    Three, average density is very different than the median. 71% of the U.S. population lives in 2% of the land area. The median block-group density in the U.S. is 3-4 dwellings per acre, which is dense enough for commuter rail near big cities or else paratransit. About 100 million Americans live in block-groups that are dense enough for regular transit service. Automobile domination is a chicken and egg situation: people drive because the system is arranged to make driving convenient; and the system is arranged to make driving convenient because so many people drive.

  • Flying is much safer than driving. Indeed, Federal flying regulations and the fact that pilots are heavily trained bear on that.

  • A few cities are instituting Vision Zero approaches. It will be nice to see the eventual statistics between these cities and non-VZ cities. Meanwhile, state DOTs continue to build stroads wherever they can, and our planning and zoning patterns ensure that we drive a lot, increasing exposure.

  • Indeed. Here’s a comparison of Rialto, CA with Rotterdam. While sure, the Rotterdam figure undoubtedly includes area that’s farmland, but the Rialto block referenced also has a lot of area that is uninhabited. With Rialto being part of one of the most sprawled regions of the country, most places really don’t have a leg to stand on.

  • There are a lot of rather dense areas in America, even in the prototypical sprawling suburb with housing tracts in the 4-6 du/ac range. In many of those situations, we’re still talking about communities that have densities rivaling many European suburbs and villages that have frequent transit connections. The biggest problem isn’t the land use, it’s that traffic studies used as part of the development process focus solely on keeping cars moving instead of utilizing the most efficient way to provide mobility. If that change alone were made, it would have as big an effect on the urban form as designing for driving has.

  • You’ll never see NHTSA mention the disaster that is low-density, single-use zoning, which lengthens the distances people have to travel in cars.

    What exactly does it take to be “low-density”? Here in the Inland Empire [PDF], we have observed densities in the cookie-cutter house communities that are well in the 6-8k/square mile range. That’s hardly what I would call “low-density”, a point made further evident by the massive, LOS-based roads built to serve them. Additionally, there are more developments in planning or construction that are incorporating far more multifamily units than previous projects and even with conservative estimates of average occupancy, density in them will still easily approach 10k/square mile. That sounds more than dense enough to support robust transit service, but as long as people keep characterizing them as “low-density” because they’re primarily SFR, the communities continue to feel like it’s not important to provide transit and alternatives.

  • Agree.

    I don’t think it’s density so much as separation of functions. You can have very high density but if all of those people still have to drive a long way for daily needs the density doesn’t help any and may actually make things worse. High or moderate density only works if daily needs (eateries, grocery, pharmacy, schools, etc.) are mostly within a mile or two and that distance includes safe walkways and separated protected bikeways.

  • Yep, that’s actually the exact model that the streetcar suburbs were built on: a dense commercial corridor served by transit which also might have some residential, then surrounded by more residential of decent density but not necessarily sardine can proportions.

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