Americans are driving more, and dying less while we drive. So says the latest Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes report, an annual study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
According to NHTSA, 37,133 people were killed in traffic collisions last year. That's about a 1 percent decline from 2016, when 37,806 people were fatally injured. It's also a 2.5 percent decrease in the fatality rate, given that Americans drove an additional 50 million miles in 2017. Adding to the good news are preliminary stats from the first part of 2018, which suggest that this year auto collision deaths are on track to decline by as much as 3 percent.
Of course, one should not assume too much from a single-year decline in the traffic accident fatality rate. "A one-year decrease, while pleasing news, does not constitute a trend," NHTSA's Heidi King tells The Wall Street Journal.
Indeed, 2017's decline comes after two years of sharp increases in the number of road deaths, driven in large part by a post-recession spike in the annual number of vehicle miles travelled. Nevertheless, the long-run trend shows an ongoing decrease in deaths from auto crashes.
In the 1975, 44,525 people died in crashes, for a fatality rate of 3.35 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That fell to a low of 1.10 in 2011, thanks to the travel-suppressing effects of the Great Recession. That rate has ticked up along with economic activity, but at a fatality rate of 1.16 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, it's still below mid-2000s pre-recession levels.
This is impressive given record high levels of employment, and it suggests that—even accounting for increased economic activity—auto fatalities will continue to fall.
One element of this decline is better safety technology, says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a research organization funded by insurance companies.
"Vehicles are much more crashworthy than they used to be," says Rade. They're more likely to sport multiple air bags, and they're more likely to have technologies such as electronic stability control, which helps prevent drivers from losing control in emergency situations.
The IIHS argues that newer crash prevention technologies could bring fatalities down even further. A 2017 study from the organization found that relatively new lane departure warning technology lowers the rate of sideswipe and head-on crashes by 11 percent—and it brings down the injury rate from those crashes by 21 percent. Another IIHS study found that automatic breaking reduced front-end collisions by 40 percent.
"The latest advanced technologies hold a lot of promise in reducing crashes in the future," says Rader, though he stresses that there are limits to how much improved technology can increase safety. It's crucial, he says, to cut down on risky behaviors such as speeding and particularly drunk driving.
Here too, technology is at work saving lives. There's a growing body of evidence that ridesharing, for instance, is helping keep drunk drivers off the road.
Miami has seen a 65 percent decline in alcohol-related crashes, which local police and safety activists attribute to the rise of Uber and Lyft. A 2017 working paper from City University of New York credited ridesharing for a 25 to 35 percent decline in alcohol-related crashes. Another paper from that year saw accidents decline by 60 percent in Portland, Oregon, and 40 percent in San Antonio, Texas, after suspended ridesharing services were allowed to return to the city. (That same paper also looked at Las Vegas and Reno, but it found the presence of ridesharing had no effect on those cities' accident rate.) Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities fell 1.1 percent last year, and they made up their lowest percentage of all driving fatalities since 1982.
Another takeaway from this year's crash statistics should be the death spikes that haven't appeared.
When Congress slashed taxes on craft distillers, brewers, and viticulturalists last year, one Brookings Institution scholar warned the cheaper booze would result in an additional 280 to 660 motor vehicle deaths per year. But NHSTA's crash data from January to June of this year shows traffic fatalities falling another 3 percent.
It goes without saying that 37,000 people dying unexpected deaths while trying to get from point A to point B is 37,000 too many. But the fact remains that fewer people are perishing on the nation's roadways even while they go more places. That's well worth celebrating.
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