After years of declines, the U.S. saw an uptick in traffic fatalities in 2012. People freaked out.
Thankfully, figures suggest that 2012 was an aberration, and that numbers for 2013 will be a bit lower.
What about 2014, though? How are we doing this year? According to early data collected by the National Safety Council, it looks like we're on the right track.
YEARS OF DECLINES
Traffic fatalities in America peaked in 1969, four years after Ralph Nader published his searing indictment of the auto industry, Unsafe at Any Speed. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 53,543 people died on U.S. roads that year.
Since then, federal agencies have mandated new safety equipment, and elected officials have passed laws that require drivers and passengers to use that equipment. Not surprisingly, we've seen a steady drop in deaths, even as the number of drivers has risen. That's downright amazing.
That said, there have been hiccups. After the number of annual fatalities dropped to around 45,000 in the early 1970s, there were several unpleasant years of increases. Eventually, however, those were resolved, and declines began again.
In 2011, the nation hit an all-time low: final numbers from NHTSA show 32,479 roadway deaths that year and a fatality rate of 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
In 2012, numbers climbed a little over two percent, to 33,561 deaths and 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Some fretted that because the Great Recession was officially over, people were back in the habit of driving to work, meaning the end of low fatality rates.
BACK ON TRACK
NHTSA takes a full year to evaluate traffic data, so we won't know for certain whether the U.S. fatality rate got back on track in 2013. The nonprofit National Safety Council, however, works a bit faster, and not only does it show a decline in fatalities in 2013, it also suggests continuing declines in the first six months of 2014.
NSC's figures don't line up perfectly with NHTSA's, since NSC counts traffic and non-traffic deaths that happen within one year of an accident. (NHTSA limits its data to traffic-related fatalities that take place within 30 days of an accident.) That makes NSC's numbers a bit higher, but unlike NHTSA's, they include people who experience lingering health problems after accidents and whose deaths are ultimately attributable to those events.
As you can see from the table above, the U.S. saw 16,334 traffic fatalities during the first six months of 2011. The following year, that figure climbed to 17,700, dropping to 16,860 in 2013.
That's good news. But even better is the fact that between January 1 and June 30 of this year, the numbers shrank four percent further, slipping to 16,180.
NSC doesn't theorize about why traffic fatalities might be falling again. However, we know that 2012's higher figures are due in part to the unusually warm winter during the first few months of the year, which kept more motorists on the road at a time when many would be snowbound or at least driving more slowly through icy patches. The unusually chilly winter many parts of the U.S. saw in 2014 may have helped keep cars parked and fatalities down.
Want to check out NSC's state-by-state and year-by-year breakdown of fatalities? Check out this brief PDF.