Highways Safer Than Ever

It’s official: fewer than 34,000 people died in highway accidents in 2009. That is the fewest highway fatalities since 1950 and the lowest fatality rate per billion vehicle miles in automotive history.

In 1910, nearly 450 people died for every billion vehicle miles driven. This declined to 150 by 1930, 72 by 1950, under 50 by 1970, just over 20 by 1990, and around 11 in 2009. Few sectors of our economy have seen such large and continuous improvements in safety.

But the recent decline is a surprise. After falling pretty steadily from a peak of 55,600 deaths in 1972, fatalities leveled off at around 41,000 deaths in 1991. Safety improvements continued, so fatality rates declined, but this was mitigated by increases in driving, so overall fatalities remained constant. As recently as 2007, 41,000 people died on the highways.

Then, in 2008, fatalities dropped to 37,261. Most commentators agreed that this 9.3 percent decline resulted from the 3.5 percent decline in driving. But driving increased slightly in 2009 (by 0.2 percent), yet fatalities declined by another 9.3 percent.

One commentator “attributed the improvements to more motorists wearing seat belts, better enforcement of drunken driving laws and enhanced vehicle safety features.” But two of these factors do not apply to motorcycles, yet motorcycle fatalities declined by 16 percent in 2009.

Analysts at the University of Michigan have taken a detailed look at recent declines in fatalities, but did not find that any one factor was primarily responsible for the improvements. However, they did find that the greatest reductions in fatalities took place during rush hours. Other data show that the biggest declines took place on interstate freeways and urban arterials, while declines on local streets were the smallest.

High unemployment rates suggest that, even though total driving might have increased slightly in 2009, rush-hour driving might not. So one way to improve highway safety is to have a recession. Another way is to increase highway capacities so there is less congestion. After all, if a 3.5 percent decline in driving can produce a 9.3 percent decline in fatalities, wouldn’t a 3.5 percent increase in highway capacities have produced the same result without having a recession?

This is not to say we should justify highway subsidies based on possible safety improvements. But those who oppose construction of new highways can be blamed for the lack of any reduction in highway fatalities between 1991 and 2007. The safest highways in America are urban interstates, where fewer than five people are killed per billion passenger miles. Particularly if they can pay for themselves through tolls or other user fees, safety advocates should promote the construction of more such highways.

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20 thoughts on “Highways Safer Than Ever

  1. Adam

    This article contains perhaps the most absurd and unfounded conclusion of any article ever penned here. “The who oppose construction of new highways can be blamed for the lack of any reduction in highway fatalities between 1991 and 2007.” Really?!? Just a single sentence earlier you state outright: “This is not to say we should justify highway subsidies based on possible safety improvements.” How is it possible to completely reverse oneself in the course of two sentences?

    Maybe others are willing to overlook such sleight-of-hand. I will continue to call you on such absurdities.

  2. jeramey

    I would argue that your end conclusion needs more work.

    “The safest highways in America are urban interstates, where fewer than five people are killed per billion passenger miles. Particularly if they can pay for themselves through tolls or other user fees, safety advocates should promote the construction of more such highways.”

    Your notion that to increase driver safety, safety advocates should demand more urban highways, seems flawed in two ways. First, if you’re not in an urban area, how do you build an urban highway? How does a safety advocate champion an urban highway in rural Wisconsin? Don’t they need an urban environment to build it in first?

    Second, assuming that the safety advocate was advocating for construction of urban highways in urban areas (which you pose as a logical thing for a safety advocate to do), what are the alternatives, and how do they perform? City streets, wide boulevards, bus networks, light rail, street cars, bike lanes all are ignored.

    While it’s encouraging that highways are becoming safer (though I think the research on a state-by-state basis of the costs would be fascinating), the idea that a safety advocate should simply advocate for more urban highways is not justified. They should first consider the alternatives.

  3. bennett

    Very interesting conclusion. I wonder how many people are killed on congested highways due to construction to increase capacity. I suppose by the antiplanner logic we’re all murderers in one way or another.

    It’s not that I oppose highway expansion. I oppose the lack of coordination and planning that goes along with highway expansion/building projects. Look and SH-130 in Austin. A great free flowing toll road until you get off. The highway increased the load on connecting arterial and feeder routes and bogged them down. So now your time in traffic on the highway is significantly less, but your time on the access roads and connecting streets in significantly greater. Not to mention that toll road impose greater congestion to those who choose not (or cannot afford) to use them.

    Austin has some of the worse traffic per capita in the country, and it’s not because we have a lack of highways, though we could probably use 1 more. It’s Antiplanning that is to blame for Austin’s congestion problem. We have a street system that does not connect to anything but a few major roads and highways. There is no relief built in the system. Often there is only one way to go, and when the monsoon season comes or there is a bad accident many have to return to their origin to see their destination another day. But NIMBY Antiplanners don’t want street connectivity because that means someone might actually drive down their street. Heaven forbid!

    Highways are only a part of the trip we all take every day. Traffic engineering is not plumbing. Bigger pipe is not always the only/best solution.

  4. Dan

    This article contains perhaps the most absurd and unfounded conclusion of any article ever penned here. “The who oppose construction of new highways can be blamed for the lack of any reduction in highway fatalities between 1991 and 2007.” Really?!?

    Actually, this might me more ridiculous:

    After all, if a 3.5 percent decline in driving can produce a 9.3 percent decline in fatalities, wouldn’t a 3.5 percent increase in highway capacities have produced the same result without having a recession?

    Any connection with the title ‘economist’ surely is chuckle-worthy.

    DS

  5. Andy

    Another typical Dan posting: say nothing substantive and just engage in schoolyard name-calling.

    However, he is providing a public service by revealing how planners act in their offices at work. They treat any adverse comments with contempt and utter disrespect. After all, THEY are the experts on how the world works. Their bosses won’t let them be so direct in responses to comments, so they express their true feelings in blog comments and write their public comments in bureaucratic and acronym-laden gobbledygook.

  6. Andrew

    Interstate highways don’t have some inherent safety that local streets don’t. Its just that people drive much more complacently in familiar surroundings near their homes, and complacency kills. Also, so many deaths are related to DUI’s, and most DUI’s also occur near the participants homes, since people tend to not drive across an urban area on an interstate to get a drink.

    The obvious solution to the gruesome and bloody carnage on the highways is to avoid driving as much as possible, especially between 11p and 6a, and take modes that are generally free of fatalities like airplanes, passenger rail, and mass transit.

    It always amazes me that 30,000, 40,000, or 50,000 deaths per year an dismissed as an unavoidable hazzard of motorization, where that number of people dying, gneerally young and tragically, would be the cause of an uproar if it were a curable disease, a war, or some other preventable cause.

  7. JimKarlock

    Sorry Andrew, rail kills more people than cars.

    Sorry again, the freeways are safer (compared to neighborhood streets) because:
    1. Center barrier.
    2. No pedestrians.
    3. No stopping for turns or stop signs. (stopping for congestion produces accidents.)
    4. No traffic lights.
    5. very rare for things to runout in front of you.
    6. No intersections.

    thanks
    JK

  8. bennett

    I love that antiplanners always criticize for the lack quantitative authenticity of planner claims, yet “per passenger miles” is the only measurement they use… ever. The statement “rail kills more people than cars,” is so laughable due to this statistical masturbation that it almost doesn’t warrant a response.

  9. ws

    bennett:

    I’m critical for passenger miles for a lot of statistics ROT uses — but passenger miles is the best normalizer for auto fatalities (or transit fatalities).

    For instance, using VMT as an indicator does not correct for the fact that the amount of total people in a vehicle can drastically affect the outcome of total deaths irrespective of just vehicle miles driven. Yes, the more miles that are drive, statistically the more total deaths will occur, but there needs to be the passenger element as well.

    Just my thoughts on this.

  10. ws

    JK:

    I’m glad that less people are dying on the roads. This is great news to me, actually. Not only as a driver, but as someone who just might want a mother or father to return to their kids after getting behind the wheel.

    Unlike you, however, if this were news about how fewer people died on transit, you’d be disappointed because you couldn’t use a bunch of cherry picked data to post on your wannabe GeoCities website.

    I think that is the most glaring problem with your twisted mindset. You don’t care about human lives — it’s just about making an ideological statement.

    Shame on you.

  11. ws

    Ah, not to spam on the board but…

    If the issue were solely about building safe means of transportation (Randall mentioned expanding highways to accommodate more cars to reduce fatalities irrespective of other market-based strategies like tolling or increased user-fees), then we’d be building more dedicated row transit routes.

    Heavy rail has some of the lowest rates of injuries and fatalities, even lower than autos.

    Light rail has slightly more than cars, but only because it operates on surface routes for a portion of its alignment. Although, the question remains if a car runs a red light and runs into a LR car, is that an accident that gets tallied against LR too? Whereas in the hypothetical situation, the car was at fault.

  12. Andrew

    JimKarlock:

    “Sorry Andrew, rail kills more people than cars”

    About 500 people die per year on railroads, mostly motorists who cannot be bothered to notice a train is coming to a railroad crossing and insist on crossing immediately in front of it or actually running into the side of it. Most of the rest of the deaths are suicides.

    I don’t see how this is comparable to 40,000 people dying every year on the roads.

    Since we are in agreement that most of the deaths are during local travel, its appropriate to ask how many people die every year riding buses, light rail trolleys, and subways because they get into an accident. How many is it? A couple dozen at most right?

  13. bennett

    Craig,

    With antiplanner math your almost assured of death if you even approach an ox cart. You see, they don’t travel very far very fast, therefore fatalities per passenger mile is sooooo high.

    Actually walking is probably the most dangerous activity known to humans according to antiplanners. Wait. Sitting must be the most dangerous.

  14. Dan

    About 500 people die per year on railroads, mostly motorists who cannot be bothered to notice a train is coming to a railroad crossing and insist on crossing immediately in front of it or actually running into the side of it. Most of the rest of the deaths are suicides.

    Indeed we have discussed this here many times; it is surprising some must continue to trot out this purposely misleading statistic.

    The misleaders should be happy these poor drivers are taken off the road, making the rest of the self-regarding and the rest of us that much more safe.

    DS

  15. stevenplunk

    A substantial number of vehicle deaths are now motorcycles, are they included in these statistics? Motorcycle deaths have more than doubled in the last 20 years and now are over 5000 per year. I’m sure some are multi vehicle accidents with both cars and cycles but these numbers are statistically significant and should be recognized as such.

  16. Ryan1200

    A substantial number of vehicle deaths are now motorcycles, are they included in these statistics? Motorcycle deaths have more than doubled in the last 20 years and now are over 5000 per year. I’m sure some are multi vehicle accidents with both cars and cycles but these numbers are statistically significant and should be recognized as such.

    Sadly, this is true. Since at least 1994 total motorcyclist fatalities and fatalities per VMT have risen at an alarming rate. I don’t have the exact breakdown of crash types (see for a summary of fatality trends by year), but a lot are single-vehicle crashes from excessive speed and/or alcohol consumption. Many are also from non-endorsed or otherwise inexperienced riders.

    As a motorcyclist myself I can think of a few highway improvements (use of non-skid paint, relocating manhole covers, paving roads more frequently, clean up of gravel and other road trash, more protected left-turn phases, etc.) that would make riding easier and safer for me, but I think the only way to make a dent in the current fatality trends is to improve rider skill and enact tighter enforcement on license endorsements. The thrill and adrenaline rush of riding a fast sportbike is unparalleled, but it becomes far too easy for people to get carried away with such a powerful machine.

    In a somewhat callous sense, this makes overall highway safety trends look that much better as motorcyclists account for a larger and larger percentage of highway fatalities (while only accounting for about 2-3% of all traffic). The MSF and AMA have been fighting an uphill battle to stunt the growth of this trend for many years now to no avail. Oregon did just pass legislation that has been adopted in other states requiring the completion of a 2-day safety course prior to getting the endorsement, but many people will continue to ride sans endorsement even in spite of the hefty fines (recently increased) for doing so.

  17. Laura997

    Interesting stats. More people died in the UK last year from freezing or illnesses like pneumonia because they couldn’t afford fuel for heat. This year they have a fuel allocation for qualified residents – I heard Robert Plant say on Jimmy Fallon that he is now old enough to qualify for it – and Pagie can ride the bus for free!

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