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What's Driving the Rise in Traffic Deaths?

It’s too early to attribute this astonishing uptick simply to more drivers on the road.

Technology could help the U.S. improve its traffic fatality rates. But in the shorter term, tech might be making things more dangerous. (Richard Vogel/AP Photo)

Road fatalities are rising sharply in the U.S. Some 17,775 people died in traffic incidents during the first six months of 2016, up 10.4 percent from 16,100 over the same timespan last year, according to the latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This “alarming uptick” comes on the heels of last year’s 7.2 percent spike in traffic deaths, which was the largest since 1966. That was primarily driven by increases in pedestrian, motorcyclist, and cyclist fatalities, the NHTSA found, which were attributed to the economy’s spring-back and lower gas prices. In 2015, vehicle-miles traveled increased about 3.5 percent over 2014—the greatest growth in a quarter-century. A similarly sharp rise in VMT occurred over the first half of 2016, with Americans driving 50.5 billion more miles compared to the same period in 2015, according to the NHTSA.

Since we don’t yet have a full year of data, officials there say it’s too soon to pin this rise in deaths to more driving or any other specific cause. But a few prime suspects can be singled out—especially the one buzzing in your pocket. Distracted driving continues to be the root of many road tragedies. Officially, the share of drivers using digital devices behind the wheel jumped from less than 1 percent to 2.2. percent between 2010 and 2014, according to the National Safety Council. It was double that rate for licensed drivers ages 16 to 24—all in spite of the fact that texting and driving is prohibited in 46 states. Clearly, these laws have proven difficult to enforce. But a glance around you at the next intersection will confirm that the number of drivers who are juggling smartphones is terrifyingly large. (If you’re reading this right now on your phone while driving: Put it down!)

Another area of concern is unbuckled motorists. Though seat belts are proven lifesavers, there are still states without strict laws in place, as Governing recently reported:

The 34 states that treat failure to wear seat belts as a primary offense report average seat belt usage rates about 10 percentage points higher than those in other states. If everyone wore a seat belt, according to NHTSA estimates, an additional 2,800 lives could have been saved in 2013.

Laws requiring motorcyclists wear helmets are also of major interest for safety advocates, as is, of course, driving while impaired. States hold the reins on driving speeds, DUIs, and other safety laws, but only some of them have bolstered such legislation. Texas, Utah, Ohio, and New Hampshire are among several states that have actually increased their speed limits in recent years.  

Meanwhile, at least 14 U.S. cities have launched local “Vision Zero” campaigns to end road fatalities and injuries. But according to research by the National Transportation Research Board, the nation as a whole is seriously lagging—most high-income countries are slashing traffic fatality rates far faster than the United States.

To push U.S. traffic safety to the next level, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Safety Council have launched the “Road to Zero” coalition, a Vision Zero-esque campaign aimed at “ending fatalities on the nation's roads”—and sidewalks and bike paths—“within the next 30 years.” The DOT will grant $1 million a year over the next three years to organizations “working on lifesaving programs,” namely those focused on traffic safety education, pedestrian-friendly road engineering, targeted law enforcement, and more efficient emergency medical services—all pillars of action drawn from the Vision Zero playbook).

Zero traffic deaths within less than 15 years is clearly an ambitious (and perhaps unreachable) goal, but transportation leaders believe the ever-quickening pace of technology will eventually help reduce (rather than incite) the human errors that lead to traffic tragedy. Fully autonomous vehicles, which the feds recently endorsed with a set of early safety guidelines, are one obvious fix for bad driving, though those are still years down the road. Before the AVs arrive, drivers may expect interventions like smartphones that automatically lock when a car is in motion (Apple patented a such a technology in 2014) and improved ignition interlock devices to stop intoxicated drivers from starting the engine.

If you’re dubious that smarter cars will mean fewer tragedies, take note: Traffic deaths might be rising sharply, but they’re still a lot lower than they were even a decade ago, when 42,708 people were killed in traffic. Better safety standards, more widespread seat-belt use, and improved airbags and driver aids like stability controls and anti-lock brakes have played a big role in this longer-term downward trend. But the current spike suggests that technology has its limits: We’re also going to need stricter traffic laws, stronger enforcement—and drivers who put their phones down.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.