The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has completed its analysis of traffic data from last year, and the findings are astonishing. In 2011, fewer people died on U.S. roads than at any time since 1949. Even better: once you factor in the amount of time drivers spent behind the wheel, NHSTA says that the 2011 fatality rate was as low as it's ever been.
That said, there's definitely room for improvement -- and in fact, a couple of areas could spell trouble down the road.
TRAFFIC DEATHS & THE FATALITY RATE
As you might recall, 2010 was an historic year for U.S. drivers. That year, 32,885 people died on America's roadways, and although the number seems high, it was a marked improvement over figures from the previous six decades.
In 2011, that number slipped again. According to NHTSA, there were 32,367 traffic-related fatalities last year, or a drop of about 1.9% from 2010. America hasn't seen that few fatalities since 1949, when the number was 30,246.
But the comparison to mid-20th-century stats isn't entirely fair, since Americans are traveling far more than we did in 1949. In fact, cars and trucks in the U.S. traveled about 2,930,654,000,000,000 miles in 2011, which is just shy of 400 trips across the solar system.
Consider the number of fatalities and the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2011, and you discover that we had about 1.10 deaths per 100,000,000 VMT. That's the lowest on record.
(For reference, Americans motored 424,461,000,000 miles in 1949, or 1.4% of our current totals -- and back then, our fatality rate was 7.3.)
Last year, 36 states saw a drop in traffic fatalities. At the top of the list: Connecticut, which had 100 fewer deaths. It was followed by North Carolina (down 93), Tennessee (down 86), Ohio (down 64), and Michigan (down 53).
At the other end of the scale, three states had increases of more than 50 fatalities. California and New Jersey tied for that grim honor, with both recording 71 additional deaths in 2011. Arizona saw 66 more.
According to NHTSA, there are several bright spots in this data, beyond the low number of deaths and the record-low fatality rate.
1. Fatalities fell for everyday drivers. In fact, for those traveling in passenger vehicles (including pickups and SUVs), the number of deaths declined by 4.6%.
2. Drunk-driving fatalities also fell by 2.5% last year -- although alcohol did play a factor in 9,878 deaths, which is a substantial portion of the 32,367 total.
There are, however, some trouble spots:
1. Fatalities didn't drop in every category. In fact, the number of big rig occupants who died on U.S. roads last year surged 20%. NHTSA doesn't fully understand why that's the case, but the agency is working with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to draw some conclusions.
2. Fatalities were also up for motorcyclists (2.1%), pedestrians (3%), and bicyclists (8.7%).
3. Perhaps most alarming, the number of fatalities attributed to distracted driving jumped 1.9%, to 3,331. Though the rise is likely due to texting and other in-car distractions, NHTSA cautions that it may also be due, in part, to improved reporting methods.
It's also worth noting that Americans drove slightly less in 2011 than they did in 2010. Some attribute that to the sluggish economy, and if they're correct, we could see a jump in VMT -- and fatalities -- as the economy picks up speed. (NB: According to early reports, that's already happening in 2012.)
If you have time this Tuesday, there's a lot of interesting data in the NHTSA report. You can download a PDF of the overview from the Department of Transportation website.