The Highway Death Toll Rises: Here's Why

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 04, 2013

We’d gotten complacent, because the highway death toll has been steadily dropping. In 2011, it hit its lowest level in more than 60 years, with 32,367 fatalities, compared to 43,510 in 2005. We were pointing with pride to a number of factors—high-tech cars bristling with safety equipment, fewer vehicle miles traveled (in part because of high gas prices, which hit an average $3.60 a gallon last year), tougher regulations ( “Click It or Ticket,” “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over”) and a growing consciousness about distracted driving. Federal safety officials were touting "remarkable improvements in both the way motorists behave on our roadways in the safety of the vehicles they drive."

Fatal accidents were up in 2012. Distracted driving and miles traveled were key factors. (Flickr/Tobyotter)
Fatal accidents were up in 2012. Distracted driving and miles traveled were key factors. (Flickr/Tobyotter)

But erase all that because deaths were up by 7.1 percent in the first nine months of 2012. Looking around the country, Kentucky, Nebraska and South Carolina are all reporting higher state fatalities, though southern Connecticut is down. AAA calls the most recent trend "alarming."

For 2012 we have only the first nine months of the year, because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn’t released the rest. But that number, 25,580, suggests we just went through a very bad year indeed. Those numbers are up 1,700 from the same period in 2011.

We’re all searching for answers. NHTSA failed to meet my deadline with a response. But Sharon Berlin, a safety guru at AAA, had a few ideas. She said that warmer and clearer weather in the first part of last year got more people on the road. And that’s reflected in the stats: Yes, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) went up in those first nine months of 2012, though only six tenths of one percent.

“It’s not a big percentage, but it translates to 14.2 billion miles, and that’s a lot,” Berlin said. It is, and I’m sure VMT is one reason for the grim uptick in highway deaths, but maybe not a big one. Fatalities are rising per a set number of miles driven--from 1.09 per 100 million miles in the first nine months of 2011 to 1.16 in the same period  of 2012.

With the final numbers for 2011 in hand, we see another glaring stat: Distracted driving went up two percent that year over the 2010 numbers. It may be up more in 2012, and we’ll know soon.

Car Talk's Ray Magliozzi thinks today's complicated cars are a big part of the growing distraction--it's not all teens with cellphones. "  I think to a large extent the user interface may be to blame," Ray said. "As people trade in their 10-year-old cars for new ones, they are finding out perhaps how much more complicated it is to adjust the heat or change the station on lots of these new models. I feel that folks are being distracted way too much, even after they've had their new cars for several months. I also get the feeling that everyone is driving much faster than ever before. A new car will make you do that sometimes. It is distressing that the numbers are up. We were doing so well."

They're not the only culprit, but cellphones definitely are a big reason for the numbers going up. According to the feds, 3,092 people died in crashes involving distracted driving in 2010. That same year, a whopping 416,000 were hurt in crashes with a distracted driver involved. In 2011, the numbers jumped with 3,331 deaths. Those are big numbers, and sure to rise because cellphone ownership—and out-of-control use—is on the ascendant. Research consistently shows, too, that those numbers are almost always dramatically under-reported. Who wants to admit you were talking to your kid when you drove off the road and through someone's living room? (Or worse.)

We take distracted driving very seriously here at Car Talk Plaza. Here's our blog on the subject. And here's some NHTSA video you need to see about one very young victim of distracted driving:

There are other factors: Motorcycle-related deaths are up, and fatal accidents involving big trucks climbed 20 percent (though not on large volumes). Bicycle-related fatalities saw an uptick, which means that bike riders and drivers need to be more conscientious about sharing the road. In 2011, 677 bicyclists were killed in traffic accidents, up 8.7 percent from 623 in 2010. But note that the actual numbers are much lower than for distracted driving (or for alcohol, but that’s a constant).

I have a dilemma here, because I have two teenagers learning how to drive. I think they’ve gotten the message about distracted driving, but it doesn’t mean their friends have. Some 40 percent of all American teenagers—nearly half—say they’ve been a passenger in car whose driver used a cellphone in a dangerous way, The Pew Center reports.

Monash University says that drivers using hand-held devices are four times more likely to end up in crashes that injure themselves. I’d know that stat even if I hadn’t read it here, because my daughter recited it to me. She could have added that the crash risk from drivers text messaging is 23 times worse than if they weren’t using their phone. Here's one more of those distracted driving videos. Remember, you only have to be distracted for a few seconds:

I'm not claiming that the horrifying bump in traffic deaths has just one or two causes, and don't forget about all that extra driving. “You can’t point to one particular thing,” says Berlin, “but there is more risk of collision when you’re on the road—that’s simple physics.The rest is only speculation.”

Right now, I’m speculating that major factors are distracted driving and more people on the road. What do you think? Let us know!

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