U.S. Traffic Fatalities Highest in a Decade

More than 40,000 people died in U.S. traffic-related accidents during 2017, according to the National Safety Council (NSC), a private non-profit organization founded in 1913. What’s worse, about the same number of traffic-related fatalities occurred in 2016, meaning that more than 80,000 persons died in traffic accidents over the two years. That’s roughly equivalent to everyone in Sumter dying—twice.

But in the decade immediately preceding 2016, vehicular deaths had steadily been on the decline every year.

Why the Recent Upsurge?

Clearly, the reason for the increase in deaths is not that our cars aren’t safe enough. In one year—from 2015 to 2016—traffic fatalities rose 5.6 percent, even as the latest safety features for our vehicles grew both more commonly available and cheaper to acquire. Greater than 20 percent of 2017 vehicles had Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) installed, up from 8 percent in just two years’ time. Prices for ADAS systems have also been on the decline; such systems can cost as little as $1,800 and are available on cars as inexpensive as a $20K Honda Civic. ADAS generally consists of autonomous braking, keep-in-lane steering alerts and aids, and adaptive cruise control, all of which have been shown to reduce traffic accidents.

Unfortunately, safer cars do not automatically translate into safer roads and fewer deaths, because of human behaviors.

Distraction, Drinking, Drowsiness

It’s likely not news to you that drunken and drugged driving is responsible for a lot of crashes and heartache. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 2016 figures recorded that 10,497 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes; it’s one of the worst years on record. To put that another way, more than 25 percent of 2016’s traffic deaths were due to DUIs.

Nationwide, DUI deaths have gotten so out of control that three states—Hawaii, Utah, and Washington—considered dropping the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.05 percent during 2017. Utah actually did pass such a law that goes into effect December 30, 2018. A BAC of 0.05 amounts to only one drink for a 120-pound woman and about two beers for a 150-pound man. However, even at 0.05 BAC, there is a noticeable reduction in a driver’s coordination and the ability to track moving objects, steer, and respond to emergency situations.

Distraction, notably from cell phones and in-car tech like infotainment systems, is also playing a larger and larger role in traffic deaths. You might be shocked to know the NSC estimates that cell-phone-related crashes account for 26 percent of all vehicular accidents, and that includes hands-free usage. In 2015, 3,477 people died because of distracted driving, according to the figures released by the NHTSA.

Consider drowsiness: The latest research done on those behind the wheel demonstrates that a solid 10 percent of all vehicular crashes are due to driving while sleepy. A study that was published in February, 2018, by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety used a new method named PERCLOS to define when a driver’s eyes might be closed

The chief executive for the NSC, Deborah Hersman, commented that, while alcohol, speed, distraction, and other factors play a big role in deadly crashes, at least half of crash deaths could be attributed to not wearing a seat belt. “The same things that have been killing us for decades are still killing us,” said Ms. Hersman.

Reversing a Grim Trend is Up to Us

Our traffic fatality rate far exceeds that of other developed nations. The U.S. rate is approximately 109 traffic deaths per one million people. In Germany, the rate is 29 per one million persons, and in the U.K., 44 per one million. The NSC estimates that, by the end of 2017, our traffic fatality rate will reach 123 deaths per one million people, on a par with developing economies such as India.

While more and better automotive technology clearly helps, technology alone won’t save us. Until we change our behaviors, including wearing seat belts, it’s likely that deaths on the road will continue to rise.