More data suggests that traffic deaths rose sharply in 2016

February 16, 2017

In January, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued some preliminary data on traffic fatalities for the first nine months of 2016. Now, the National Safety Council has released estimates of its own, providing more strong hints that the number of roadway deaths in America rose sharply last year.

NHTSA vs the NSC

Stats from NHTSA and the NSC never line up perfectly. NHTSA is a federal agency, and it considers a fatality to be traffic-related only if it occurs within 30 days of a crash. The NSC, on the other hand, is an independent nonprofit, which takes a broader view of traffic fatalities--one that includes deaths that happen up to a year after a collision.

As you might expect, the NSC's numbers are a fair bit higher than NHTSA's. However, figures from both tend to follow the same upward and downward trends, and so it is in this case. 

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NHTSA estimated that 27,875 vehicle occupants, bicyclists, and pedestrians were killed in car crashes during the first nine months of 2016. That marked an uptick of eight percent from the 25,808 deaths recorded the year before.

During the same nine-month span, the NSC says that 29,790 people died on U.S. roads, or roughly seven percent more than the 27,803 recorded in 2015.

In other words, though NHTSA and the NSC have different definitions for auto-related fatalities, both recorded a dramatic rise in deaths between 2015 and 2016.

Additional NSC estimates

As you can see from the NSC's chart above, the organization says that 40,200 people were killed on American roads during the 2016 calendar year. That's six percent more than in 2015 and a shocking 14 percent higher than in 2014.

The NSC also notes that in 2016, the U.S. auto fatality rate was 12.40 deaths per 100,000 people. That's a 5 percent increase from 2015. 

The NSC also provides state-by-state stats, some of which are encouraging, others of which...well, not so much.

In the latter category, several states had increases in their number of fatalities that were 20 percent or higher than 2015 figures: Alabama (23 percent), Alaska (29 percent), Hawaii (27 percent), Iowa (26 percent), Kansas (21 percent), and New Hampshire (20 percent). New Mexico fared worst of all, with an increase of 34 percent.

Meanwhile, stats for three states remained flat, year-over-year, and 12 states recorded decreases. Most improvements were in the single digits, though some were higher--namely, Montana (-15 percent), Nebraska (-11 percent), North Dakota (-14 percent), and South Dakota (-13 percent). Wyoming bested all of them, with a drop of 23 percent.

Why the jump?

Assuming the NSC's stats are correct, the question on everyone's mind is: why the increase? How is an increase even possible, given the fact that Americans are driving less often and that we own fewer cars?

The second question is probably a bit easier to answer. Yes, several studies suggest that drivers in the U.S. are sliding behind the wheel less frequently, and we're parking fewer cars in our driveways.

However, any reduction in travel per person has been offset by America's population growth. Data from the Department of Transportation (PDF) shows that during the first nine months of 2016, Americans put 2.4 trillion miles on their odometers--or about 13 round-trip flights to the sun. That's a three percent increase from 2015 and nearly seven percent higher than 2006.

In other words, sure, we're driving less, but there are more of us, which has led to a net increase in miles traveled. 

That alone doesn't answer the first question, though: why the increase? 

Sadly, like NHTSA, the NSC doesn't theorize about the uptick in the number of deaths, other than to point to the growing economy and today's low gas prices, which mean that Americans are driving more. But the correlation between travel and fatalities is iffy at best. For years, the number of U.S. traffic deaths has drifted downward, even as the number of miles we've traveled has surged. (Check that PDF again: over the 25-year period it covers, there are only three year-over-year dips in miles traveled, in 2008, 2009, and 2011.)

So, what gives? Some analysts have blamed apps and distracted driving for the increase in auto-related deaths. We're not sure the answer is that simple. Hopefully, NHTSA will shed some light on the matter when it releases final fatality figures later this year. Until then, share your own thoughts in the comments below.

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