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New Stats Show Traffic Deaths Continue Their Stubborn Climb

Even as more new cars are equipped with crash-avoidance systems and advanced safety technology, traffic deaths on U.S. roads are rising at a pace not seen since the 1960s. The number of Americans killed in traffic crashes increased 5.6 percent to 37,461 in 2016, according to figures released Friday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s an average of more than 102 people every day.

It’s the second consecutive year that federal safety officials have recorded a spike; combined with an 8.4 percent increase in 2015, fatalities have climbed at their fastest pace since a two-year period from 1962 to 1964, a stretch that helped spur President Lyndon Johnson to promote the creation of the Department of Transportation.

“This is really a call to action that every driver needs to heed, because we’ve reached a point that if we don’t do something, we’re really going to be in trouble,” says Maureen Vogel, spokeswoman for the National Safety Council, a nonprofit that, among other things, educates drivers on the abundance of new technology entering their cars. “You can’t lose almost 40,000 on the roads and continue to be complacent.”

“The U.S. DOT releases the bad news on a Friday afternoon prior to a three-day public holiday hoping to divert attention from these grim statistics.”

– Jackie Gillan, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

Although it’d be tempting to blame smartphone use for the rise in road deaths, the NHTSA statistics show a 2.2 percent drop in fatalities attributed to distracted driving in 2016. Instead, a broader range of culprits that are all too familiar to safety officials may be responsible for the grim increase: Alcohol-related deaths rose 1.7 percent year over year. Speeding-related deaths increased 4.0 percent. Unbelted deaths increased by 4.6 percent.

Safety officials have been bracing for the increase. The number of traffic deaths historically ebbs and flows along with the economy, and as Americans traveled a record-breaking 3.2 trillion miles in 2016, according to Federal Highway Administration figures, there was some anticipation that the numbers would rise. But economic resurgence cannot fully explain the two-year increase. Federal statistics show that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased 3.5 percent in 2015 and an additional 2.2 percent in 2016, while traffic deaths climbed 8.4 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively, in the same time periods.

Memorial to a fallen cyclist, Toronto leads Canada in
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Despite these increases, this remains a historically safe time to travel on American roads. Even with the disconcerting spikes, the number of deaths has risen to just under 1.2 deaths per 1 million VMT, which isn’t far off from a record low of 1.1 deaths per VMT set two years ago. And it’s far better than the 1960s, when the numbers were four to five times higher.

Features such as automated emergency braking are helping to reduce crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But right now, those systems are optional features, and a voluntary agreement among automakers to make them standard doesn’t take effect until 2022. That’s not fast enough for many safety advocates, who say the federal government should be doing more to hasten the deployment of safety technology and promoting policies that would result in more automated-traffic enforcement.

“If there were 102 people dying every day in airplane crashes, our federal and state lawmakers would be rushing to pass laws and issue regulations to address a serious and costly public-health crisis,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Instead, the U.S. DOT releases the bad news on a Friday afternoon prior to a three-day public holiday hoping to divert attention from these grim statistics. Inaction and indifference will only result in more increases in highway deaths and injuries.”

“The United States cannot continue to witness these
-year-over-year increases in traffic fatalities.”

– David Strickland, former NHTSA administrator

One potential roadblock toward faster action may be the absence of a NHTSA administrator. President Trump has yet to announce a nominee for the position, which has remained vacant since Mark Rosekind departed at the end of the Obama administration.

If the numbers were grim overall, they are especially troubling for road users outside of vehicles. The number of pedestrian fatalities climbed 9 percent year over year to 5987, the highest number recorded since 1990. The number of bicyclists killed increased 1.3 percent to 840, the highest number since 1991. And the number of motorcyclists who died jumped 5.1 percent to 5286, the highest number since 2008. Collectively, this group of what safety officials call “vulnerable road users” accounted for nearly a third of all deaths.

“Certainly, in terms of occupant protection we’ve made great leaps and bounds, and inside cars, occupants are better protected,” a NHTSA official said Friday. “But on the outside, with the vulnerable road users, we still have a problem there.”

There's a 450-foot-long mural in New York City that contains a memorial marker for pedestrians killed along city streets.
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A 450-foot-long mural in New York City contains a memorial marker for pedestrians killed along city streets.

Preliminary estimates from the National Safety Council indicate the two-year climb in deaths may finally be leveling. Motor-vehicle deaths in the first six months of 2017 have tracked 1 percent lower than the organization’s figures from the first six months of 2016. But Vogel said it’s too early to conclude that the trend has reached its peak, noting that the final six months of the year tend to be deadlier than the first six.

While the trend may continue to fluctuate in the short term, there’s widespread hope at the federal level and optimism elsewhere that an influx of automated features and, eventually, fully self-driving cars will curtail the death toll.

“By removing humans from the driving process, self-driving vehicles will offer an opportunity to significantly reduce the number of our loved ones killed and injured in crashes each year,” said David Strickland, a former NHTSA administrator and current counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group that works on behalf of several autonomous-vehicle developers. “The United States cannot continue to witness these year-over-year increases in traffic fatalities.”

Whether self-driving cars are a magical fix for the problem won’t be known for a decade or longer. For now, decidedly low-tech fixes like buckling seatbelts and avoiding alcohol might go a long way toward solving a sad and stubborn problem.

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