Why are traffic deaths on the downswing?

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The decrease in traffic fatalities is a good sign.” –NHTSA Administrator David Strickland

Yes, indeed, the nosedive in traffic fatalities over the last five years is indeed a very good thing as David Strickland, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) noted above (with significant understatement, I must add.)

According to NHTSA’s early projections, the number of traffic fatalities fell 3% between 2009 and 2010, from 33,808 to 32,788. Even more noteworthy, since 2005, fatalities have dropped 25%, from a total of 43,510 fatalities in 2005. The same estimates also project that the fatality rate will be the lowest recorded since 1949, with 1.09 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from the 1.13 fatality rate for 2009.

But the question that needs to be asked here can be boiled down to single three-letter word: WHY?

Why are highway traffic fatalities declining so quickly – some 25% in five years? That is a downswing of simply epic proportions.

There are many theories, of course, from NHTSA’s claim that it’s due to the agency’s intense focus on reducing “distracted driving” on out to broad macroeconomic factors, as the global recession that began in 2008 coupled to high fuel prices is leading to a reduction in vehicle miles traveled.

The real answer, however, is far murkier: in short, nobody knows why. Michelle Ernst with the non-profit group Tri-State Transportation Campaign posed this very question in September last year in a blog post after NHTSA hailed the decline in fatalities that occurred in 2009.

“In the late 1980s, traffic fatalities plummeted for four straight years, largely as a result of increased seat belt use and concerted efforts to stop driving while under the influence,” she said. “But the cause of this recent drop in fatalities is unclear.”

By NHTSA’s own admission, its anti-distracted driving campaign only accounts for at most 6% of that fatality drop – a number Ernst said only accounts for a fraction of the year-to-year absolute change, while distracted driving deaths overall haven’t fallen as a share of total traffic deaths.

The decrease in fatalities isn’t due to less traffic, either, for in 2010 VMT jumped nearly 21 billion miles, according to NHTSA’s data.

The agency’s regional breakdown of the fatality data showed the greatest drop in fatalities – some 12% – occurred in the Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, while Arizona, California and Hawaii had the next steepest decline of nearly 11%.

NHTSA also thinks its efforts to beef up vehicle safety has something to do with the overall decline in highway fatalities as well – specifically its “encouragement” to install technologies such as electronic stability control, forward collision warning and lane departure warning systems. The agency said its newly updated 5-star rating system, unveiled in 2010, established more rigorous crash-test standards and began providing consumers with improved information about which cars perform best in collisions.

Yet these are only recent developments – far too soon to affect the lion’s share of the vehicles already operating out on our roadways.

The Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) also thinks its efforts to develop more “safety focused” pavement designs be involved – designs that reduce the risk of running off the road by shaping pavement edge, along with promoting the use of rumble strips and cable median barriers to separate opposing directions of traffic to reduce the incidence of crossover head-on collisions.

Yet again, we haven’t seen a huge boom in new highway construction these last five years. In fact, quite the opposite is occurring as there’s been a dearth of new highway construction and repair projects in recent years as the negotiations have bogged down over a new six-year surface transportation bill. So while the FHWA’s efforts will bear great fruit one day, methinks we’re only still at the beginning of these “pavement improvement” efforts.

Yet figuring out WHY traffic fatalities are falling so steeply is critical, for, as Tri-State’s Ernst noted, “it will allow policymakers to institutionalize whatever changes have contributed to the decline.”

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