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.

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

  1. ? Not too surprising, our society accepts a certain death toll in lockstep with VMT, and VMT similarly increases as gas prices go down. The spike we’ve seen is in lockstep with OPEC’s price manipulations.

    I know without even reading the earlier comments that they’ll feature that tiresome refrain, “Autonomous vehicles will fix everything!” Which basically just means let tens of thousands of people die over the next few years while awaiting the magic bullet. And would also mean huge changes to infrastructure just to keep unsustainable single-occupant cars on the road, some way, somehow, instead of changing the infrastructure for better transit.

  2. Car crashes are the #1 cause of preventable death for children and the elderly. They are the #1 cause of people becoming killers for the years in-between.

    Now add in the pollution, which kills a similar amount. Now add in the pollution from manufacturing the car, which is also a similar amount.

  3. Back when I took EMT training, the Red Cross instructor told us that minor incidents got worse when people weren’t buckled in. What would be a correctable slip on ice or fender-bender could jolt the driver from a place where he/she could control the car, or a passenger could collide with the driver with the same effect.

    I never learned whether there was research on this, or whether it was anecdotes from the first responders.

  4. We are not “too” obsessed with speed; it is correlated with the most serious and fatal collisions, which should be no surprise. Choosing to speed beyond the capability of correcting course is a variety of incompetence, quite likely the most widespread application of the Dunning-Kruger effect we’ve got.

  5. Speeding beyond the capability to correct course is the very definition of excessive speed. I’m just saying speed itself isn’t the cause of most collisions by a long shot. It certainly makes any collision worse but in many cases something else caused the collision. For example, a person could be driving at a speed where they are easily able to correct course for any obstacles they are likely to encounter. However, that person might also be looking at their phone. They fail to notice something, then collide with it. Their speed didn’t cause the collision. Their incompetence did.

    The part about driving at a speed where you can correct course for any obstacles you’re likely to encounter is also important. Here I agree on many residential streets drivers just go too fast. They may be able to correct course to avoid other motor vehicles, but they’re not accounting for the very real possibility a pedestrian might appear in their path. On a limited access highway you only need to take other vehicles into account, and hence much higher speeds are safe.

  6. Heres the problem with those defensive driving courses. They dont help in core driving skills. They also are not catered to real life situations. Instead, those 6 hour courses spends 3 hours on simple stuff as getting a registration for your vehicle, what is the point system, what is Blood alcohol. But they dont help you in real life situations like How do you drive in rain. How should you drive with pedestrians in a city environment. How do you handle bicyclists. How to manuever your vehicle in a turn properly. Its the same course as the simple standards our state DMV’s original licensing system. It doesnt make a driver better. A tougher licensing system to begin with as you mentioned with skills testing makes drivers better by weeding out unskilled drivers

  7. Not only that, but quite a few shady operators let people pay money, and then give them a certificate for having completed the course. Tougher licensing (and regular retesting) is the only way we’ll have better drivers.

  8. It only works on highways in that it minimizes the speed differences. On local streets “go with the flow” is a disaster if the road design makes everyone go 50 mph.

  9. 9% “distracted related”?? Ha. I challenge that NHTSA data. Perhaps it should say PROVEN TO BE distracted related.
    If we were to, say, put cameras in a sample of cars, after drivers sort of forget they are there and/or just stop caring what the camera sees, I bet would would see tons of distracted driving, dd that is much harder to detect, enforce—eyes off the road for long periods while changing music, checking handheld GPS, or even non-electronics related distraction. Ketchup dripping on the shirt, reaching for those fries…

  10. In addition, there is an enormous negative impact on wildlife. Every day I see dead Opossums, raccoons, foxes, Porcupines, etc. There is a horrific toll on birds and butterflies and amphibians. Then there are the plants. The county here just yesterday, for some reason, decided to aggressively mow and spray 20 feet on each side of the rural roads here. That narrow strip between the roads and the farms and the new suburb-like developments is the last holdout for many native plant species. No doubt some of the upscale suburban invaders who are building second homes here complained about the “untidiness” or something.

  11. Speeding and impatience is also epidemic. People racing to lights, rapidly changing lanes on highways etc. Driving is a very selfish culture overall though I do believe there are many individual good drivers.

  12. There was no excessive speed as you weren’t exceeding the speed limit.

    That doesn’t follow. The speed limit is the maximum speed it is legal to drive, even in the best of conditions. In some conditions, the highest safe speed may be considerably lower.

  13. Particulate Matter (PM) is the on-the-ground, motor-vehicle-related cause of health problems. The sources are mainly tires sloughing off tiny bits of matter during normal wear, and diesel engine exhaust. PM is an issue that is separate from Co2 and other greenhouse gases. PM is far from equitable, as affected populations, those who live near major highways, are usually poor and/or non-white.
    There have been hundreds of studies linking PMs to everything from respiratory problems to autism.
    Particulate Matter is truly the silent killer.

  14. Unless someone develops ‘clean tires’ and truly ‘clean exhaust vehicles,’ deaths and illnesses from transportation-related air pollution will continue to outpace deaths and illnesses from collisions. Teslas and Bolts produce as much tire-related particulate matter as internal combustion vehicles.

  15. Perhaps fat people should be prevented from driving. Really, all people should be prevented from driving.

  16. Troopers made 637 drunken driving arrests, up from 629 in 2017. They also issued 13,863 speeding citations, 1,256 citations for failing to wear a seat belt, and 136 citations to drivers for not securing children in safety seats.

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