America’s Traffic Death Toll Is a National Disgrace


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.

89 thoughts on America’s Traffic Death Toll Is a National Disgrace

  1. Buried in the numbers was the fact that fully half of those deaths were from people not wearing their seatbelts. Another third were from DUIs. That is to say, fully avoidable.

  2. 40,000 deaths from cars vs. 20,000 deaths from guns (net of suicides). The answer is obvious. We need to ban cars and quickly. Trucks, too.

  3. It can be summed up in one word – Millennials. Of course we need more details about the crashes. But not only on the victims, but on the contributing factors. Whereas the victim may be a 45-year-old pedestrian, the contributing factor maybe the 26-year-old running a stop sign.

    The economy has improved to the point that Millennials are now able to afford to buy cars. But here is the problem:

    The Millennial Generation was the first generation to grow up in the back seat of cars. From car seats to boosters to being driven around as teenagers, Millennials are the chauffeured generation.

    Us Baby Boomers and Most Gen Xers fought for the right to sit in the shotgun seat. We watched from the front seat our parents/older siblings/other adults how to drive. We were taught how to drive long before we could reach the pedals. We couldn’t wait until sophomore year of high school to take driving lessons, and for me passed my driving test (100%) on my 16th birthday. Buying a used car was the goal of many of our part-time jobs. How many if us were amateur mechanics? (For me it peaked at age 21, when I swapped drive trains out between Chevy Novas.) By the time we graduated college, most of us had over 6 years of driving experience.

    Between being chauffeured and restrictive driver’s licenses, most Millennials have not gained driving experience. Add to it the Great Recession, and we are now beginning to see Millennials driving en masse. The problem is, we have drivers in their mid to late 20’s with driving skills equivalent to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers when they were 19.

    Unfortunately, this is the head of the pig in the snake. Fatalities will increase until the majority of Millennials gain driving experience.

  4. You sound like kind of a crank, but I sympathize. Your reasons are also my reasons for turning my kid’s car seats to the front as early as practical, letting them ride in the front seat sometimes, and buying a car with great big windows and low doors. I really think kids who grow up staring backwards at the upholstery of their mom’s SUVs are going to be at a noticeable disadvantage in life, and not just because they don’t learn about how to drive.

  5. Really, looking at a per capita rate isn’t a truly fair comparison. Deaths per 100M vehicle miles traveled is a better metric.

  6. That’s one theory, I’d like to see if data supports it. I know I’m a mediocre driver and a Millennial despite sitting in the shotgun seat (and fighting for it with my sister constantly) because I didn’t like the car dependence where I grew up and so I went to college and later moved to places where I didn’t need a car. So I’ve driven very little in the past 15 years since I first drove. I know a lot of other millennials who did the same.

    But honestly it could be older drivers too? We’ll have to see what the data says. One reason I did get my license recently is because when I visit family I don’t want my 90 year old grandma picking me up from the airport.

  7. That doesn’t even count the deaths from pollution related to cars.

    That said, apples to oranges, though the lack of societal concern about cars is alarming.

  8. I wouldn’t say “Crank”. This is my theory. We went through the same thing with the Baby Boomers (crash rates peaking in the late 60’s early 70’s). I also have observed more people under 30 driving cars. The US had record auto sales last year (17+ million). The Millennials have found the road, it is now for the rest of us to get out of their way.

  9. See below. The Millennials are simply mirroring the Baby Boomers. The Great Recession shifted some of the age ranges, but the trend should mirror it. As I stated in my post; I to, would like to see all the data.

  10. Forget the shotgun seat. How many hours did you ride in that seat yourself with them driving before letting them do that alone?

    New York State recommends 100, but I made sure to go way over. When they were up at college even after I let them have the car I’d take the bus up and take the long ride home with them.

    It was the hardest and most time consuming thing I had to do as a parent after age 5.

  11. “40,000 deaths from cars vs. 20,000 deaths from guns (net of suicides).”
    No reason to net out suicide by gun for that comparison. The deaths of drivers are like the suicide deaths by gun. The deaths of pedestrians and cyclists are more like the killings of others by gun.

  12. Difference in generations. After I got my license, my mother was more concerned about the cost of automobile insurance than my safety. As long as I paid my share of the insurance, I was free to go without her supervision. Isn’t it funny, high school part-time job simply to support the driving habit.

  13. This is a stupid generalization about millennials with no data to back it up.

    Maybe the rise in crashes is due to baby boomers that are getting too old to drive.

  14. Not wearing seatbelts and DUI are contributing factors, but not the cause. The cause is too much driving. If those people weren’t in cars in the first place, they wouldn’t be dead.

    The fact is, we drive too much in this country, and the best way to make is safer, is to drive less, and at slower speeds.

  15. Because we insist on trying to reduce speed via camera, posted speed limits…basically everything except changing the built environment to FORCE people to slow down.

    The extent to which so many municipalities seem to have come to depend so heavily on moving violating fines to fund their budgets is probably connected to this. Why do something that will actually get people to slow down, instead of just catching them when they speed, when it’s going to hurt the budget?

  16. Thanks for raising this.

    We should not be pitting gun deaths and car deaths against each other – we need much more societal and public attention to reduce BOTH.

    And much less on “terrorism”.

  17. No, most of the problem is the idea of universal driving. Some large percentage of the population, probably upwards of 75%, lacks the coordination, intelligence, spatial ability, judgement, temperament and attitude to safely pilot a motor vehicle regardless of the level of training. We’ve partially compensated for this by dumbing down both cars and roads so that most people most of the time get where they’re going. Unfortunately, the lack of inherent driving ability now only manifests itself when some crisis occurs which requires split second reflexes and decisions to avoid. At that point, either you have what it takes or you don’t. All the training in the world can’t make up for slow reflexes, poor ability to control your vehicle, and so forth when it really matters. That’s when most of these 40K deaths and millions of injuries occur.

    Or put another way only a small elite group can ever hope to become successful fighter pilots. While driving isn’t quite an exclusive club, I’d be surprised if even one quarter of the population has what it takes at some point in their lives. Out of the 25%, many will experience deteriorating cognitive functions or coordination which might limit their driving years to one or two decades. Overall, probably 90% of the driving age population has no business ever getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. The fact we’ve set much of the country up so there’s often little choice in the matter is the source of the problem. Getting a driver’s license should be almost as difficult as the type of training race car drivers go through. There also needs to be regular retesting to make sure you can still execute what you learned. If we had such a system, there would be no inherent “need” to drive or own a car because we would have adequate public transit for the 90+% who didn’t drive. Driving would probably be mostly an upper class hobby.

    Us Baby Boomers and Most Gen Xers fought for the right to sit in the shotgun seat. We watched from the front seat our parents/older siblings/other adults how to drive. We were taught how to drive long before we could reach the pedals. We couldn’t wait until sophomore year of high school to take driving lessons, and for me passed my driving test (100%) on my 16th birthday. Buying a used car was the goal of many of our part-time jobs. How many if us were amateur mechanics?

    Being from NYC and unable to afford a car at that age, any urge to get a driver’s license passed by my mid 20s. For a city person who likes to stay in the city, a car is pretty much an expensive ball and chain, not something of real use. I did take a bit of interest in my brother’s exploits fixing up old cars, but that was enough for me. I realized watching him how hideously expensive cars were, even then. I hated all of the jobs I could get at that age enough that I would never squandor my earnings on a money pit like an automobile. Growing up poor meant saving most of my earnings so I wouldn’t need to work those kinds of jobs all my life.

  18. I agree with you on most of what you posted. I am a supporter of the states of the U.S. adopting European driver’s testing. I also agree with autonomous vehicles. One thing the media focused on was the increase in distracted driving. It is obvious that people would rather be doing something else rather than focusing on driving. The sooner we get operating a motor vehicle out of the hands of humans the better.

  19. I am not a crank. See my post below. The Millennials are simply mirroring the Baby Boomers. The only thing that has changed is the age range of the learning curve. I will be the first to admit, when I was young, I did some stupid shit, motorcycling, bicycling, and motoring (including racing on Mulholland Drive in the early 80’s). But this stupid shit gained me experience. By the time I was in my mid-twenties most of it was out of my system.

  20. Please reread my first paragraph. I state that we need more information. My theory is that the Millennials are simply mirroring the Baby Boomers.

  21. Seat belts = contributing. DUI = Cause.

    The best way to lower the rate is to adopt stricter licensing policies. Also, the sooner autonomous vehicles come into general use the better. Take operating the motor vehicle out of the hands of the individuals who would rather be doing something else, and the accident rate drops 90%.

  22. That’s exactly my point. It’s pretty obvious to me given how many people look at their phones instead of the road that they would much rather be social networking than piloting an automobile. This is especially true of the millennial generation who grew up connected. I don’t even have a cell phone and I like the idea of going out knowing I’ll be in peace. I can catch up on the social media stuff whenever I get home. A lot of people can’t. They have to be connected literally all the time.

    I’m sure there are a few millennials who actually enjoy the act of driving and actively try to become better every time they go out. Unfortunately, the numbers of people like that have probably declined with each generation, perhaps starting as far back as the Greatest generation (those born in the 1910s and 1920s). As we made driving more accessible, it became mostly a way to get from point A to point B rather than something done for its own sake.

    Ironically, we’re experiencing a similar shift now with cycling. Back when I first started riding 39 years ago, most cyclists were hard core with great cycling ability out of sheer necessity. They had to be to survive. And most prided themselves on their ability and enjoyed riding for its own sake. Now we’ve made cycling more accessible to the masses. While this is a great thing, it also means many of today’s cyclists don’t care as much about becoming the best riders they can be. They’re just getting from point A to point B. That said, given a choice of an incompetent person piloting a bike or a motor vehicle, I’d much rather the former. I even find that inexperienced cyclists aren’t much of a hindrance or annoyance or danger to experienced cyclists like me. On the flip side, my brother, a very experienced driver who takes pride in his abilities, is increasing annoyed by all the incompetence and discourtesy he sees on the roads. So really, even those who enjoy driving can rarely do so nowadays thanks to the democratization of driving.

  23. I hate to pint this out to you… But your comment about cycling is something that many cyclists point out about specially built infrastructure. You put in “Protected” bike lanes and the novice cyclist “Feels” safe. This cyclist still faces the dangers, and additional dangers due to the design of the facilities, of motor vehicles. They “Feel” safer, but yet still get into crashes. Regardless of infrastructure, cyclists need proper education. Ironically, with proper education, many cyclists realize they do not need the infrastructure.

    I take pride in the education I have voluntarily done. AMA safety classes and Keith Code Super Bike classes as a motorcyclist. LAB and Cycling Savvy as a bicyclist. And yes, the stupid shit I did in a car at 3:00 am on the canyon roads. It was the motorcyclist training that increase my knowledge of cycling and motoring the most. In order to protect my safety, I learned most of the illegal things motorists do. I then became a better motorist realizing how I should interact with my two-wheeled brothers.

  24. No argument about the fact a lot of “protected” infrastructure doesn’t improve safety. There is a place for bike infrastructure but it should exist mostly in places where motor traffic is too heavy and fast for even a trained cyclist to safely coexist. And it should probably be completely separate, especially at intersections. As an experienced cyclist, that’s the type of infrastructure I would want, not protected lanes. The vast majority of streets however probably don’t need any special bike infrastructure.

    Yes, of course cyclists should receive some education. No matter how great the bike infrastructure, sooner or later you need to do at least some of your trip on streets shared with other users. You need training and practice for that.

  25. Quickly? What would you replace cars and trucks with? I’m an electric railway enthusiast, and I’d love to see widespread construction of trolley lines, but as a practical matter, it’s highly unlikely.

  26. 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.

    5% drop 2015-2016, but a 15% increase 2014-2016.

    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.

    If you assume a linear relationship. Maybe it’s nonlinear:

    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.

  27. The deaths of pedestrians and cyclists are more like the killings of others by gun.

    How about multi car crashes where only one driver is assigned any blame?

  28. As with speeding, slow decline of both over the years, though the share with alcohol as a factor seems to have leveled off.

    Maybe it’s just your phrasing, but to clarify crashes can have more than one contributing cause listed. Fair amount of overlap between DUI and not wearing seatbelts.

  29. That is the dues ex machina solution. You might as well be saying that transporter technology is just around the corner too.

  30. That’s a rather dubious argument. For instance, air safety stats are reported in terms of passenger miles travelled, It’s misleading in some ways because accidents are more likely to happen at take-off or landing, and with smaller planes and shorter trips. But even so, you have to take into account the amount of driving when citing accident numbers. And also the vehicle type, weather and visibility factors, and so on.

    And that’s why the US numbers are not as bad as indicated. Comparing the US to the UK, as the article does, is meaningless because journeys in the UK are far shorter on average. And also, being much more congested, it’s often not possible in the UK to drive at speed.

  31. As Stalin might have said, “A single death is a tragedy; 40,000 deaths is just a statistic”

    Unless someone you know is killed, then car accidents are just things that happen to other people, and its effects are limited to snarling up traffic for a few hours.

    People value convenience and flexibility too much to see massive restrictions on vehicles, even at 40,000 deaths a year. It’s one person in 10,000, annually. Long odds.

  32. “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”

    I really do not see how this can work, unless the driver voluntarily activates it. How can my phone know I am driving?

  33. Let’s add all the death and destruction from environmental and social fallout.

    Much worse than some “collision fatality rate.”

  34. My residential street in the US has cars parked on both sides, leaving barely enough room for two way traffic.

    Hasn’t stopped 40-50 MPH accelerations by at least one fourth of every car that uses it. Nor have several back end collisions with parked cars.

    It’s automotorized libertarian wonderland!

  35. ^ this. I’m often a passenger using my phone. “Hey, where can we stop for X?” Let alone being a passenger on a bus or train.

  36. So the argument is that using an appropriate metric doesn’t create the right level of moral panic?

    This is a policy decision. It should, like all policy decisions, be looked at in as objective a cost/benefit analysis as possible.

    The use of cars has costs and benefits. They need to be weighed.

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