The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its final calculation of 2016 crash fatalities, finding 37,461 traffic deaths, compared with 35,485 in 2015. The only good news is that the 5.6 percent increase was less than 8.4 percent increase from 2014 to 2015.
This is the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2007. After that year, there was a dramatic decline in fatalities to a low of 32,367 in 2011. Though fatalities had remained roughly constant at about 42,000 per year from 1995 to 2007, they suddenly declined by 10 percent in 2008 and another 10 percent in 2009. Fatality rates — deaths per billion vehicle miles driven — had been declining for more than a century, but traffic experts could not explain why there was a large decline in total fatalities in that two-year period.
It was apparent, however, that this decline in fatalities coincided with the first decline in miles of driving since the energy crises of the 1970s. The above chart shows miles of driving (VMT) and fatalities from 2006 through 2016. I’ve played with the vertical axes in order to make the changes in driving more apparent; in percentages, the changes in miles of driving were smaller than the changes in fatalities, with driving falling by 1.9 percent from 2007 to 2008 and increasing by 3.8 percent from 2014 to 2015.
When the 2009 fatality data were released, the Antiplanner suggested that, if a 2 percent decline in driving could save thousands of lives, conversely a 2 percent increase in road miles could save an equal number of lives. Thus, anti-highway zealots may be effectively killing people. This was supported by research showing that the biggest decline in fatalities took place during rush hours and on freeways and other major arterials.
Now, driving is growing again and so are traffic fatalities. The chart shows the general downward trend in fatalities per billion miles of driving: note that fatalities declined in 2007 even though driving increased and that fatalities in 2016 are well below 2006 even though miles of driving are greater. Overlaid over this general trend, however, is a specific trend showing an accelerated decline in fatalities as driving dropped in 2008, 2009, and 2011, while fatalities grew with the growth in driving after 2014.
It is notable that the fatality rate per billion miles of driving increased slightly in 2015 and 2016. Such an increase is historically rate, but so is a 3.8 percent increase in driving in one year.
Aside from that question, there are some other interesting points. First, this quick summary shows that slightly more than half of all fatalities take place on rural roads, yet we drive more than twice as many miles in urban areas as in rural areas. This means fatality rates in rural areas are more than twice as high as in urban areas. However, there seems to be a worrisome shift in fatalities to urban areas: in 2000, less than 40 percent of fatalities were urban, while in 2016 it was 49 percent.
The 2016 data also show a disturbing trend toward pedestrian fatalities. Although pedestrians made up just 15 percent of fatalities in 2015, they represented 25 percent of the increase in fatalities in 2016. Except for occupants of heavy trucks — who suffer just 12 percent as many fatalities as pedestrians — no other group grew as fast. Bicyclists, for example, comprised 2.3 percent of 2015 fatalities but just 0.6 percent of the growth in fatalities.
Many cities have embarked on a crusade of reducing traffic fatalities to zero. This is a noble cause, but the methods they are using are questionable. The most popular programs involve reducing the amount of road space dedicated to motor vehicles while increasing space for cyclists and pedestrians. But the fatality rate data suggests this may be the wrong direction because it increases, rather than reduces, congestion. Instead, they should think about increasing road space for motor vehicles, perhaps with an emphasis on limited access roads, while continuing to provide pedestrians and cyclists with safe places to travel.