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U.S. Traffic Gets Safer

A welcome reversal from recent spike


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America’s roadways got a bit safer, again, in 2019.

New stats from National Safety Council show the number of fatalities last year declined by 2% to 38,800. That’s after a 4% drop in 2018 and in spite of U.S. drivers traveling an additional 3 billion miles last year.

Injuries that require medical attention, which totaled 4.4 million last year, also declined by 2%. The estimates suggest we’re back on track to make driving safer.

Feeling Good

A decade ago, safety officials were feeling good about that trend. Annual motor vehicle-related deaths in the U.S. had dropped 22% to 35,300 between 2005 and 2010. The total hadn’t been that low since the mid-1950s.

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There were plenty of factors that could explain the good news. New cars were being equipped with more safety features than ever. Highway departments were making the roads themselves safer. And more of us were driving around in larger, heavier SUV/crossovers and pickup trucks.

The Great Recession was a factor too. In hard times, people drive less. Yet the annual death toll remained low right through 2014, well after the economic recovery was under way and everyone began to hit the road again.

Mystery U-Turn

Had the U.S. turned a corner in terms of highway safety? It sure seemed that way. But then things began to unravel.

Between 2015 and 2017, motor-vehicle deaths in the U.S. surged by an alarming 14% to 40,300. Why? Safety types still aren’t sure.

Many suspect an upswing in driver distraction, notably texting. The research isn’t clear. Still, the safety community is always happy to celebrate when fatality totals shrink.

State Differences

NSC notes there wide swings in 2019 fatality figures at the state level.

Death totals fell sharply in seven states: Alaska (-16%), Connecticut (-14%), Nevada (-14%), New Hampshire (-30%), South Dakota (-21%) and Vermont (-31%). But the number grew more than 5% year-on-year in Delaware (+20%), Maine (+35%), Nebraska (+8%), Ohio (+8%), Tennessee (+10%) and Wyoming (+32%).

The council notes that research to explain the fluctuations likely will take several years to complete.

Separately, NSC frets over spikes in pedestrian deaths. Its final figures for 2018 show driver distraction was a factor in 8% of crashes that year.

Better Odds

Annual death counts can be a scary way of looking at highway safety. And for good reason, since they don’t tell you about the relative safety of travel by car.

For that insight, the number to look at is the actual death rate, expressed as fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles. Thankfully, there’s been good news on that front pretty much since the car was invented.

In the 1920s, the U.S. death rate per 100 million vehicle miles was above 21. By 1950, it had dropped to 7.6. The rate fell to 3.5 in 1980 and 1.6 in 2000. It was at 1.2 in 2018, the most recent year calculated.

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