Traffic death rates stabilize as Americans ease off driving

By Chris McCahill

Traffic fatalities held steady around 37,000 in 2017, following a 14 percent jump over the previous two years, and 2018 is on track for a similar number according to new data from NHTSA and the National Safety Council. Once again, this points to the most consistent cause of high death rates in the U.S.—the amount we drive.

SSTI noted last year that traffic deaths tend to track with VMT (vehicle miles traveled), except that the swings in fatalities are much more pronounced. The newest fatality reports come just a month after FHWA released numbers showing VMT also leveling off in the first half of 2018. NSC’s estimates are somewhat higher than NHTSA’s (shown in Figure 1), largely because they include vehicle-related deaths on private property and deaths that occur more than 30 days after a crash.

Figure 1. Half-year trends in VMT and traffic deaths (sources: FHWA, NHTSA and NSC

As high as the number of traffic deaths is (especially compared to our peers), this new trend is promising, but it also means that transportation safety officials should be mindful of VMT growth and take appropriate steps to manage it. We know that drunk driving and speeding are also major causes of traffic deaths, but they are part of this larger issue. Distracted driving is also a major concern but so far there is not much evidence (including an otherwise successful enforcement campaign in California) that tackling the issue can drastically affect crash rates.

In light of a grim new climate report from the IPCC, thinking about VMT and traffic safety as one in the same issue might also be the only way to reach ambitious emissions reduction goals, as noted in a recent Curbed article. From an engineering and design perspective, this points to solutions like improving transportation options, including transit, while designing roads to be slower and more accommodating for non-drivers. Thinking more broadly, however, this implicates everything from the price of driving and parking to development regulations.

Chris McCahill is the Deputy Director at SSTI.