America Hasn’t Seen a Spike in Traffic Deaths This Bad in 50 Years

This graphic from NHTSA tells you how many people were killed in motor vehicle collisions last year, but says very little about the systemic causes of America's abysmal traffic safety record.
This graphic from NHTSA tells you how many people were killed in motor vehicle collisions last year, but says very little about the systemic causes of America's abysmal traffic safety record.

In 2016, 37,461 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes, according to official statistics recently released by U.S. DOT — a 5 percent increase over the previous year.

Coming on top of the 9 percent increase in 2015, that adds up to the worst two-year swing in traffic deaths in more than 50 years. Not since the early 1960s has the country seen such a spike. Safety is even getting worse according to federal officials’ preferred metric — deaths per mile driven rose 2.6 percent.

People walking or biking account for a rising share of total traffic deaths. Last year drivers killed nearly 6,000 pedestrians — an increase of 9 percent. The number of people killed while cycling rose slightly to 580 — still the highest toll since 1991.

Even before the current increase in the traffic fatality rate, America was falling far behind its international peers on street safety. But despite the preventable loss of tens of thousands of lives, the federal agencies that put out this update did not make any appeal for policy changes to turn this trend around.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the above graphic on Twitter. It provides a rough breakdown of the primary factors causing fatal crashes (but not for pedestrian and cyclist fatalities), but these statistics are of limited value. As Boston University professor Ital Verdi has written, focusing entirely on driver error glosses over systemic causes like dangerous street design and car-centric transportation systems.

Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Board made a breakthrough on this front with a major new report calling on state and local governments to reduce the prevalence of lethal speeding. That kind of message is completely absent from U.S. DOT’s by-the-numbers data release last week.

There is no call to action accompanying this news about the staggering death toll on America’s streets. No reflection on the country’s conventional traffic safety policies and how they have failed. There’s barely even an acknowledgment that things are getting worse.

If anything good can come out of this awful news, it’s a heightened awareness that our streets and transportation networks need to change. Federal transportation officials aren’t getting that basic message out.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

No Explanations as Traffic Deaths Jump 13.5 Percent

|
In the wake of the shocking and tragic massacre in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, many people are now, understandably, skittish about going to the movies. But the most dangerous part of going to the movies is driving there. In the first three months of this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 7,630 […]

It’s Official: 33,561 People Killed in Traffic on American Streets Last Year

|
The official 2012 death toll is out for our nation’s poorly-designed, auto-centric transportation system. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic injuries on the nation’s roadways claimed the lives of 33,561 people. The headline of the agency’s press release, “NHTSA Data Confirms Traffic Fatalities Increased In 2012,” is quickly walked back by the subhed, […]

U.S. Traffic Fatalities Rising Fast — Especially Pedestrian and Cyclist Deaths

|
Traffic fatalities in America hit a seven-year high in 2015, with pedestrians and cyclists accounting for a disproportionate share of the alarming increase, according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Last year, 35,200 people were killed in traffic — a 7.7 percent increase over 2014 and the worst death toll since 2008. The number of people killed while […]

NHTSA: Traffic Deaths Shot Up 5.3 Percent to 34,080 in 2012

|
Deaths from motor vehicle crashes rose 5.3 percent in 2012, according to new numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [PDF]. It’s the first time since 2005 that fatalities have gone up. Vehicle miles traveled only rose 0.3 percent last year. The winter was especially nasty, with 12.6 percent more deaths than the previous winter. […]