U.S. Car Crash Death Rate Declines Below Suicide Rate

September 24, 2012

As we've reported before, the number of traffic fatalities on U.S. roads is falling, and in 2010, the fatality rate hit a record low. 

In fact, Americans are now more likely to die by suicide than in a car crash. For while both causes of death have been on the decline, one is far outpacing the other.

Numerous factors have contributed to America's steadily falling auto fatality rate. Perhaps most important are the safety features we've seen added to cars: from seatbelts to airbags to seatbelts with airbags, modern vehicles boast an array of devices keep drivers and passengers safe in the event of a collision. (Provided, of course, that people wear their seatbelts, which they're not always doing.)

Beyond that, today's cars have an arsenal of high-tech sensors to lessen the chance that we'll be in an accident in the first place: adaptive cruise control, lane-departure assist, collision-avoidance braking systems, and so on. Other onboard devices like OnStar allow us to contact emergency personnel right away when we're hurt on the road.

And even though distracted driving has become more of a problem nowadays, drunk driving has declined. That's partly due to public education campaigns, but theorists also suggest that more rigid enforcement of drunk-driving laws has helped.

In 2009, there were 33,808 traffic-related deaths in the U.S. -- down 25% from 2000. Unfortunately, that same year (the most recent for which we have data), roughly 37,000 Americans took their own lives -- only 15% fewer than in 2000.

No one can definitively say what's keeping the suicide rate so high. Clearly we need to do a better job of reaching our men and women in uniform, though: more military personnel are committing suicide than being killed in battle, and July was the worst month on record. The data doesn't get much better for veterans, who are roughly twice as like to kill themselves as non-veterans.

Then too, there have been a number of high-profile cases involving LGBT young people who have committed suicide because of bullying and harassment. There is also some data to suggest that the economy is to blame for the stats, because in 2009 we were still in the grip of the Great Recession. (We'll see if things improve as America's economic outlook brightens.)

Worse: while data is pretty clear about auto fatalities, many researchers believe that suicides are under-reported, so the current rate could be far higher than we think.

The moral of the story is simple: buckle up when you're in the car. And if you or someone you love may be at risk for suicide, there are a number of resources you can turn to -- this month, which is National Suicide Prevention Month, or any month. Major ones include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), the Military Crisis Line for those on active duty (800-273-8255), the Veterans Crisis Line (800-273-TALK), and the Trevor Lifeline for LGBT individuals (866-488-7386).

[h/t Marty Padgett]

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