Our infrastructure isn't crumbling, but traveling on America's highways is getting bumpier and more dangerous. That's according to a new report from the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website, which found that the pavement quality of America's roads has dipped in recent years, while road deaths continue to rise.
Reason's Annual Highway report used 2016 data to examine the performance of each state's highway system across 13 separate metrics, from spending per-mile to the number of structurally deficient bridges.
Perhaps the most alarming finding is that the overall driving fatality rate has risen to 1.18 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2016. That's a 4.4 percent increase from 2015, and a 7.3 percent increase from 2013, according to the Reason Foundation report.
A large part of this increase is due to an improving economy, says Baruch Feigenbaum, one of the authors of the report.
"In a good economy, people tend to travel more, and they tend to drive more and take more discretionary trips," he says, adding that the spread of smartphones and texting are likely also pushing up distracted driving deaths.
Improving safety requires better road design, Feigenbaum tells Reason. "Making sure your lanes are wide, but not too wide, can cause people to drive more safely." In addition, hands-free technology being built into cars may also help reduce deaths over time, he says.
Recent years aside, road fatalities have been on a downward trend for the past 50 years.
In addition to safety concerns, pavement quality has also taken a hit, according to the Reason Foundation report. The number of urban interstates in poor condition nationwide rose 3 percent from 2015 to 2016, while the percentage of rural interstates in poor condition rose nearly 6 percent.
These overall trends mask a lot of variation across the country. Only about 1 percent of urban interstates are in poor condition in states like Florida and Illinois. That's compared to California, where 12 percent of urban interstates are in poor condition.
A lot of states with a high percentage of poor quality roads also spend a lot of money on repairing those roads. Nearly 10 percent of New Jersey's urban highways are in poor condition, despite the state spending $511,266 per lane-mile—the highest disbursement rate in the country—on its highways. Many states could make real improvements to their roadways for less money by using better contract management and public-private partnerships, Feigenbaum says.
Congestion continues to be a problem, with commuters in New York, New Jersey, California, and Georgia all spending more than 50 hours a year in rush-hour traffic. The average American commuter spent 34.7 hours in rush-hour congestion.
The Reason Foundation report comes right as policymakers are considering a major update to federal transportation policy. The Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 is set to expire next year, giving Congress an opportunity to address some of these worsening roadway conditions.
Feigenbaum says federal lawmakers should consider paying out bonuses to states for meeting quantitative performance metrics like reducing congestion and road fatalities. Allowing more toll roads and public-private partnerships would also help generate money for fixing road surfaces.