Sunday, April 3, 2011

ONLY 33,000 U.S. Traffic Deaths in 2010

It's been all over the papers: the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a press release on Friday explaining that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated 32,788 U.S. traffic fatalities in 2010. That makes an estimated fatality rate of 1.09 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Before I tell you anything else, just slow down for a second and think about that. That number of people is hard to connect with emotionally since it represents a degree of tragic loss that is probably beyond a human being's capacity to feel. Indeed, it is probably a blessing that we cannot feel the collective pain of so many broken families and smashed dreams.

Much of the news coverage has focused on how this figure is an improvement relative to recent years. In this LA Times story covering the news release we see a lot of comparisons to previous years. We hear that the number and rate of deaths have fallen relative to 2009, and that the number of fatalities is the lowest since 1949. We see this chart:

NHTSA data also show a decline in the death rate since 1994. The rate fell in every year except two between 1994 and 2010. In 1994 it was 1.73 per 100 million VMT and, as mentioned earlier, in 2010 it was 1.09 per 100 million VMT.

Further, the fact that these 2010 data are estimates shouldn't give us too much pause about their accuracy. When the estimates were released for 2009, the total deaths number they gave was only off by 155 when compared to their final count.

Still, all of this coverage, despite the good news about improvement even in the face of increasing VMT left me with a bad taste in my mouth. As Secretary LaHood said in the release: "[T]oo many of our friends and neighbors are killed in preventable roadway tragedies every day".

We need to redouble our efforts to reduce the death toll of our transportation system. To do anything less would be a betrayal of those who have fallen, those we will lose every single day of 2011, and the hundreds of thousands of people who will die in the decades to come so that we can move around in motor vehicles.


  1. Hmm. I think the only sense in which these numbers look like "good news" is when they are compared to previous years in the U.S. I think this is a mistake - we should really be comparing our fatality rates to other countries. I don't have the exact numbers, but if you look at the state of the art in traffic safety in countries like Sweden, our death and injury rates look terrible. We have failed to adopt basic technologies like traffic calming and lower speed limits that have proven effects on safety.

    I think the discourse about traffic safety should become more like the discourse on education, where we not only look at our performance as a nation and compare different regions internally, but also look at how we're doing compared to the rest of the world.

    John Fisher (a higher-up at LADOT) did a presentation in my UCLA Traffic Engineering class on fatality rates in the U.S. and he used historical data to tell the story that safety is improving. I think this is very deceptive - and I think its disingenuous of traffic engineers to take credit for crash rates declining when the auto industry has done a lot to make cars safer.

    At any rate, I'm almost certain that our rate of improvement far behind the state of the art in the European countries. Someone needs to dig out the data, but for the wealthiest country in the world we do pretty poorly at protecting our citizens from dying while driving.

  2. Here are comparison road fatalities per 100,000 population from 1998-2001.

  3. @ Herbie & Anonymous

    I agree completely that the best thing would be to compare death rates for different countries. I appreciate the international data on deaths per capita but I think the best rate measure would compare the number of deaths to the number of kilometers driven, because this gives you the deaths for a given amount of driving, which is probably a better measure of how dangerous the drivers are in a given area.

    I've got something actually. Check out page 15 (p. 16 of the pdf) of this report from the International Transport Forum. If this is accurate, the U.S. is doing better than several countries, but worse than several others. Iceland has the lowest death rate per vehicle kilometer.


  4. Thanks for the heads up about that report, Chewie!

    I also like Figure 4, which is good context. It shows traffic deaths per population for many countries, where usually engineers will show the U.S. graph by itself. Figure 4 shows that our decline in deaths / person happened at a much slower rate than some other countries. But at least we weren't flat, like Hungary.

    Page 15 does the really helpful work of telling us that although we are generally richer than every other country, we do worse on traffic safety than...

    Iceland, Sweden, the U.K., Ireland, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Israel, and Australia.