Auto Fatality Rate Hits Historic Low In 2014, But Early Stats On 2015 Are Sobering

November 25, 2015

We've got good news and bad news for auto safety advocates. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released official fatality statistics for 2014 (that's the good part), and the agency has also unveiled preliminary data from 2015 (that's the bad).

Let's start with the good news. 

In keeping with a preliminary report posted over the summer, NHTSA says that the total number of traffic fatalities dipped slightly in 2014, falling from 32,719 in 2013 to 32,675 last year. That in itself is encouraging, but the 44 fewer deaths recorded in 2014 don't tell the entire story.

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Though trends suggest that each of us now drives fewer miles than we have in the past, as America's population grows, there are more vehicles on the road -- and more vehicles means more roadway traffic. In fact, last month U.S. drivers put more miles on their odometers than they had in any September on record: some 259.9 billion miles in total.

Given the country's bump in traffic, you might expect to see a parallel bump in auto-related deaths, but as noted above, fatalities actually fell. (The number of injuries remained the same in 2014, at around 2.3 million.) As a result, last year's auto fatality rate tumbled to an all-time low of 1.07 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. 

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What caused those roadway deaths? According to NHTSA: 

  • Drunk driving crashes continue to represent roughly one-third of fatalities, resulting in 9,967 deaths in 2014.
  • Nearly half (49%) of passenger vehicle occupants killed were not wearing seat belts.
  • The number of motorcyclists killed was far higher in states without strong helmet laws, resulting in 1,565 lives lost in 2014.
  • Cyclist deaths declined by 2.3 percent, but pedestrian deaths rose by 3.1 percent from the previous year. In 2014, there were 726 cyclists and 4,884 pedestrians killed in motor vehicle crashes.
  • Distracted driving accounted for 10 percent of all crash fatalities, killing 3,179 people in 2014.
  • Drowsy driving accounted for 2.6 percent of all crash fatalities; at least 846 people died in these crashes in 2014. [emphasis ours]

To be clear, 32,675 deaths is nothing to cheer about. It's 32,675 deaths too many. However, the trend suggests that fatalities will continue to decline over time, and the arrival of autonomous cars could improve things exponentially. It's worth noting that NHTSA blames 94 percent of all collisions on human error.  

As we said, that's the good news. Now the bad.

In releasing its 2014 statistics, NHTSA also noted that early data on 2015 suggests "a troubling increase in the number of fatalities". The agency reports that the total number of auto-related fatalities for 2015 is running about 8.1 percent  higher than last year, and the fatality rate is up some 4.4 percent.

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As a result, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says that the Department of Transportation will focus greater resources on safety initiatives. Among those is new technology to address drowsy driving, as well as new educational campaigns to curb drunk, drugged, and distracted driving and encourage the use of safety belts. The DOT will also boost efforts to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

Final, official data on 2015 won't be available until this time next year. In the interim, you can read PDFs of NHTSA's data on 2014 and 2015. Be sure to check out the last page of the 2014 report to see how your state stacks up on alcohol-related auto accidents.

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