America’s Traffic Death Toll Is a National Disgrace

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More than 40,000 Americans were killed in traffic last year, according to new estimates from the National Safety Council, a non-profit that aims to reduce preventable deaths. That’s a 6 percent year-over-year increase, and a shocking 14 percent increase compared to two years ago.

It’s the first time traffic fatalities have surpassed 40,000 since 2007. Until recently, a long-term decline seemed irreversible as vehicle safety technology improved. But last year the number of traffic fatalities was higher in absolute terms than in 1992.

In addition, traffic crashes resulted in an estimated 4.6 million “medically consulted” injuries last year, which cost Americans $432 billion in lost wages, medical costs, lost productivity, and property damage.

In 2016, thanks in part to low gas prices, total miles driven by Americans increased 3 percent — not enough to fully explain the rising body count.

U.S. government efforts to reduce traffic deaths have been too limited compared to peer nations, the NSC said in a statement. “Our complacency is killing us. Americans believe there is nothing we can do to stop crashes from happening, but that isn’t true,” said NSC President Deborah Hersman. “The U.S. lags the rest of the developed world in addressing highway fatalities. We know what needs to be done; we just haven’t done it.”

Federal safety agencies remain intently focused on vehicle safety standards and reducing risk factors like drunk driving and not using seat belts. While that strategy has had some impact, America’s strategy is clearly a failure compared to peer nations.

Nations like Sweden have systematically overhauled urban roads to emphasize safety over speed. Sweden’s per capita traffic fatality rate was about a fourth of the United States’ even before the recent increase.

The American traffic fatality rate reached 12.4 per 100,000 people last year, about twice as high as Canada and four-and-a-half times higher than in the United Kingdom. Put another way, if America achieved the same fatality rate as the UK, more than 30,000 lives would be saved each year.

The NSC called for a number of interventions that go beyond public safety campaigns, including ignition locks that prevent drunk drivers from starting cars, visibility standards for commercial trucks, additional traffic enforcement cameras, and a comprehensive approach to pedestrian safety.

The upward trend in traffic deaths was not uniform. Washington State — whose largest city, Seattle, has been making progress in shifting trips away from driving — saw a decline in fatalities over the same period.

A 2014 study found that for every 1 percent increase in transit mode share, a city can expect a 2.75 percent decline in traffic fatalities. But better transit options and land use planning have been essentially ignored by the federal traffic safety establishment.

The NSC survey also revealed that Americans are remarkably nonchalant about risky driving. Almost a quarter reported speeding in residential areas and half said they thought it was okay to text and drive.

The report comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration considers requiring cell phone companies to institute a “driver mode” that disables some functions when a car is in motion. The effort has been receiving pushback from tech companies.

  • Joe R.

    The problem with rates is that they ignore raw numbers. Motor vehicle incidents are the third or fourth leading cause of death in the US. Motor vehicles are also major contributors to the two leading causes of death—cardiovascular disease and cancer. It’s really easy to minimize all this by saying stuff like “Hey, look, the death rate per 100M vehicle miles isn’t all that bad.” Maybe it isn’t, and the rate would be acceptable if we drove 1% of the miles we do, but the fact is the number is high because we rely on a more dangerous mode of transport for much of our transportation needs..

    If we look at the number of fatalities instead, then this gets us to realize the death rate per 100M is still too high (compared to other countries) AND we use motor vehicles way too much. Imagine if 99% of those motor vehicle miles were switched to plane or train or bike. Instead of 40,000+ direct deaths you would only have a few hundred (still too much in my opinion but at least it’s not a leading cause of death any more). You’ll also have perhaps ten times as many lives saved for indirect deaths caused by motor vehicle emissions.

    This isn’t war where some high casualty rate is acceptable if it means furthering your objective. We’re getting people from point A to point B. Dying when getting from point A to point B is a really useless, pointless way to die. The only acceptable number of deaths for doing this is as close to zero as we can get. We have much safer means to move people. We’ve had these means for decades. And yet we stubbornly refuse to even start making changes to society which would lessen motor vehicle use.

  • joe

    follow the logic train…if we just drove 50% farther, we could reduce our crash rates 50%. wow, so simple. But at the end of each day, the same number of people die. That is why this VMT in the denominator makes no sense. It just helps the transportation profession feel good about itself for doing essentially nothing to improve safety except make cars more crashworthy.

  • Richard

    40k a year is too high, per capita deaths are too high. However, without deaths per vehicle miles traveled the solution is unclear.

    If per capita deaths are 4 times higher, but deaths per vehicle miles traveled is similar, then the problem is we drive too much. The solution then is to drive less. In this case our roads are just as safe as anywhere else, and investing in making them safer is unlikely to pay dividends.

    If per capita deaths are 4 times higher because deaths per vehicle mile traveled is 4 times higher, then the problem is our roads are unsafe. The solution is to make roads as safe as in other countries. Making efforts to have people drive less would still result in anyone who is still driving taking an unsafe risk.

    The answer is actually a mix of both. We drive more than other nations AND our roads are not as safe. By not talking about those two causes and their contribution to the problem you are hamstringing yourself before you try to solve it.

    Another issue in the US is a lot of those deaths are caused by drunk driving compared with other countries. I dont have fresh data in my hands, but 15 years ago I know if Americans reduced their drunk driving fatalities per capita to that in the EU we would have half the total number of deaths. Again this is important because if you take expensive steps to make Americans drive less and make roads safer but do nothing to prevent people from driving drunk you aren’t going to solve the problem.

  • Richard

    autonomous vehicles are not here yet. You might as well say the sooner medical science perfects the resurrection, the better.

  • Joe R.

    The drunk driving problem would easily be fixed with ignition interlocks installed on all vehicles. We don’t want to do this for the same reason we don’t want to continuously record a vehicle’s telemetry and make it readily available, namely unfounded concerns about “privacy”. The telemetry data I think is even more important here. Storage devices which exist nowadays could easily save a vehicle lifetime of important telemetry data like speed, brake/accelerator/steering wheel position. That data would automatically be looked at by law enforcement and insurance companies in the event of an incident. Good drivers should support this. Instead of being assigned partial blame because there isn’t enough data to make a conclusion, they would be off the hook entirely. Bad drivers obviously wouldn’t like it but that’s the point. Once you have no way to BS your way out of an incident that was your fault maybe the state would get serious about taking bad or drunk drivers off the roads, permanent. An additional enhancement to the ignition interlocks could also require insertion of a valid driver’s license or the car doesn’t start. That would mean once you license is revoked, your driving days really are done.

  • davistrain

    I’ve long suspected that our state legislatures have a higher percentage of boozehounds than the general public. Maybe not as much as in the old days, but still enough to resist campaigns for stricter DUI laws. And consider the amount of automotive advertising in the media–newspapers with weekend editions stuffed with car and truck ads. Or how about football on TV? The major part of commercial breaks is vehicles and beer.

  • whatev

    The GPS on smartphones can detect its moving speed. Phone companies can find driving speed patterns, distinguishing from biking or taking a bus/train. Once the phone is moving like a car, the “driver mode” will activate. PokemonGo has similar mechanism in place to make sure players walk/run instead of driving around.

  • bobfuss

    How can my phone distinguish whether I am driving a car or a passenger in one? It would be beyond annoying to have my phone cut out because it wrongly thought I was driving.

    Also not clear how it could differentiate a car from a bus.

  • BubbaJoe123

    First off, if we drove 50pct farther, it wouldn’t reduce our fatality rate by 50pct. Math, you know.

    Secondly, ignoring the frequency of an activity when assessing the risks is absurd.

  • The number of miles driven is an important variable in how many people die. Using that metric, you eliminate that variable from consideration. Reducing VMT should be a strategy for reducing these deaths. The deaths per million miles metric is a big tool they use to avoid that and rising driving miles is a big reason we’re not making progress on this as fast as other countries.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. All you need to do is look at the per capita accident rate during the Baby Boom generation. It peaked in the late 60’s early 70’s. I have nothing against Millennials, I am just stating a theory that will take many years to prove/disprove.

    All Baby Boomers and Gen Xers need to look at themselves. How many years of driving did it take before you stopped doing stupid stuff behind the wheel? How many years of driving did it take before you developed the skills to identify potential hazards and act before a crash happens? Well, nothing has changed. It will take Millennials the same number of years to gain similar experience. The only thing that has changed with Millennials is the age when they buy their first car.

  • Joe R.

    It doesn’t need to be this difficult. Just block the signal on public roads via jamming transmitters installed on streetlights. Since trains run on separate rights-of-way, train passengers will still be able to receive signals. You might be able to do the same with exclusive bus lanes.

  • Joe R.

    Most cars are driver only, so in practical terms it doesn’t matter if car passengers can get a signal or not. If drivers didn’t abuse the technology in the first place it wouldn’t be necessary to start thinking of ways to block it.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    That would put Uber and Lyft out of business. It will also hurt the remaining Taxi Industry.

  • Joe R.

    Suppose the VMT was tens times what it is and the rate was the same? Now you have 400K deaths instead of 40K but your deaths per million miles is still telling you driving is relatively “safe”, and therefore there’s no need to do much to make it any safer. At some point absolute numbers matter more than rates. Some activities, like skydiving, are very dangerous when you look at the fatality rate but we don’t get all bent out of shape about it as a society because few people choose to engage in those activities. When you have an activity which most people engage in from time to time, then you have to start looking at absolute numbers killed, not the rates. 40K annually shouldn’t be even remotely acceptable. Even 400 should raise an alarm when you consider that the purpose here is just getting from point A to point B. We have far safer methods of travel than motor vehicles. If only a few percent of the population used motor vehicles then the current rates might be acceptable. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Either we need to switch to safer modes, or we need to make motor vehicle travel two or three orders of magnitude safer. I personally can’t see how we can do the latter other than a universal shift to autonomous vehicles.

  • Richard

    The telemetry data would lead to problems in the roll out. New car and old car collide. Old car was speeding 20mph over, swerving lanes and ran a red light. New car was speeding in time and has telemetry that says it was speeding. Who gets blamed for the collision? The car with telemetry.

    The legal system need to be properly prepared and reformed to take into account cars with telementry, and cars need to be required to have telemetry installed.

  • Joe R.

    Telemetry is something which can easily be retrofitted into existing vehicles. My Garmin GPS, which I use on my bike, keeps a log of my speed and position. You start the rollout by requiring all new cars have telemetry installed, and all older ones need it retrofitted within a year. You don’t use telemetry data until the year is up. That puts everyone on equal footing.

  • Richard

    I think more realistically it’s 5 years after you start requiring it on all new cars, but yes something like that would get you where you want to be.

    You would need the feds to take action. At the state level, most states are too small to enact that kind of regulation.

  • bobfuss

    OK, so you admit that this technology cannot tell if you are driving or not?

  • Joe R.

    The device would need to detect where in the car you’re sitting in order to determine whether or not to activate. It can certainly be done from an engineering point of view, but it would require car makers to add a means of detecting where in the car a phone is. In my opinion that’s way too complex and prone to hacking. It makes more sense to just block out the signal altogether except at rest or gas stops. Or better yet speed up the switch to autonomous vehicles so there’s no need to disable cell phone access.

  • James Kennedy
  • bobfuss

    Well, it only “makes sense” if your aim is to prevent car passengers from being able to use their phone, which sounds fairly fascist to me.

    And just because I am in the passenger seat doesn’t mean that my phone is.

    I don’t like the Big Brother slippery slope that is implied here.

  • Joe R.

    I’m trying very hard to understand what’s fascist or big brother about keeping some jackass from texting while driving. Would you say it’s OK to be drunk while operating a crane in Manhattan or driving a train? Same thing here. You’re operating a piece of heavy machinery on public roads. The government can do whatever it likes to ensure the safety of those around you, even if it inconveniences you. And that’s all not having cell phone access, even for passengers, is. It’s a minor inconvenience.

  • bobfuss

    OK, so you actually admit that you want to stop car passengers using a phone based on some speculation that the driver might be distracted by that?

    Amazing!

  • Joe R.

    No, I’m interested in keeping the driver from using the phone. If the phone companies can figure a foolproof way to let passengers continue to use their phones I’m all for it. Based on my engineering experience, this seems highly unlikely. My guess is some hacker would defeat the system and let drivers continue to use their phones not long after the phone companies come out with something. Blocking the signal on the other hand is 100% foolproof.

    There’s a really easy way to avoid all this. Drivers must have the discipline never to use their phones. In places where they take driving seriously this honor system actually works, for the most part. In the US where too many people see driving as a right, not a privilege, it doesn’t.

  • bobfuss

    I don’t necessarily have a problem with reducing the ability of drivers to talk on the phone. But when you try and impose a “Big Brother” solution on every passenger in a vehicle than I think you go too far.

    The American system generally is predicated on the idea that we give people freedom, but slap then down if they abuse that. We don’t issue a blanket prohibition on communication on the off chance that someone might sometimes abuse it.

    Either improve the technology or re-affirm liberty, choice and freedom. This isn’t Eastern Europe

  • Sterling Archer

    The other poster isn’t trying to impose “Big Brother” on anyone. He merely presented a solution that would almost certainly save lives. If you value the ability of passengers to not have their phone but into drive mode over thousands of deaths a year so be it. I feel like most of America would be on your side anyways. We easily have the technology that could help prevent traffic fatalities but people would rather have the “freedom” to be able to exceed the speed limit than save lives.

  • bobfuss

    I would support such an idea as long as it doesn’t prevent a car passenger from using his or her phone. Freedom is important too.

  • TextNinja

    We’ve got a great solution for this that uses connected car technology (instead of GPS) and give drivers a reason to WANT to be in this so-called ‘driver mode’. http://www.textninja.com

  • BubbaJoe123

    “We have far safer methods of travel than motor vehicles.”

    Please list the ones that also provide economically viable and rapid point to point transportation for Americans across distances of greater than 10 miles in low and mid-density areas. I’ll wait.

    I’ll wait.

    “universal shift to autonomous vehicles.”

    I’m all for autonomous vehicles.

  • Joe R.

    With today’s settlement patterns there are no methods which are economically viable and provide rapid transit in areas of middle to low density. The only methods which are economically viable, such as walking, biking, or horseback, all on dirt roads, aren’t very rapid.

    Back when average density was low, but development tended to occur in towns with rail or interurban, those methods were very viable. Of course, between then and now the idea came along that everyone’s home has to be on a park. That sort of development requires ongoing subsides for roads and other infrastructure. It’s neither sustainable nor economically viable, even with autonomous vehicles.

  • BubbaJoe123

    “It’s neither sustainable nor economically viable, even with autonomous vehicles.”

    It absolutely is both sustainable and economically viable. Even if you added a reasonable carbon tax to fuel costs (which we could easily do and still have fuel prices well below those of Europe) to offset the costs of climate change, it would still be entirely viable.

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