Crash fatalities climbing faster than VMT

By Bill Holloway
Recent data indicate that the total number of traffic deaths in the U.S. in 2016 will be significantly higher than in 2015. According to an analysis by the National Safety Council, the number of traffic deaths during the first five months of the year (15,430) was 9 percent higher than during the same period in 2015 (14,210) and 17 percent higher than the same period in 2014 (13,167). This growth represents an increasing death rate relative to population and miles traveled. While total vehicle-miles traveled increased 3.3 percent during the first five months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, the estimated annual population death rate for 2016 is 12.9 per 100,000, an 8 percent increase over 2015, while the estimated annual death rate per 100 million VMT for 2016 is 1.3, an 8 percent increase over 2015. As shown in the table below, while the number of fatalities per million VMT increased in all regions of the US during the first five months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, the most striking increase occurred in the South Gulf region, where it climbed nearly 9.5 percent from 12.3 to 13.4.
Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have been increasing even more rapidly. Although there is no good data available on bicycle and pedestrian miles traveled, the number of bike and pedestrian commuters estimated in the American Community Survey shows the rough magnitude of changes in bike and pedestrian activity in recent years. Between 2010 and 2015 the number of bicycle commuters in the U.S. increased by 30 percent, climbing from 685,000 to 890,000; while the number of people walking to and from work increased by 8 percent, from 3,834,000 in 2010 to 4,153,000 in 2015—a roughly 11.5 percent gain in total non-motorized commuters. However, during this same period, while total annual VMT climbed by only 4.9 percent, the number of fatal crashes involving bikers and walkers climbed by 27 percent, according to SSTI’s analysis of FARS data.
Untangling the causes behind the increasing number of road deaths overall, as well as bicycle and pedestrian deaths specifically, is difficult. Total VMT, which is associated with the number of traffic deaths, tends to track with gross domestic product and average annual gas prices. VMT appears to exert a stronger influence on the number of traffic deaths when the economy is stronger. This may be due to additional non-essential driving trips, such as for vacations or entertainment, which have different characteristics—such as being undertaken at night, in unfamiliar surroundings, or after alcohol consumption.
With smart phones now nearly ubiquitous, distracted driving has contributed to more crashes in recent years. The number of fatal crashes involving drivers who were distracted or using cellular phones, as recorded in the FARS database, has climbed 24 percent from 832 in 2010 to 1,030 in 2015. Because drivers are likely to underreport distraction and cellular phone use, particularly after a crash, these figures are unlikely to reflect the true impact of these behaviors on fatal crashes. Some pedestrian and bicyclist deaths could also be due to the distraction of bikers and walkers themselves. A study by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of people had been on either the giving or receiving end of a distracted walking encounter—running into another person or object while distracted by their phones or being bumped by another walker who was too focused on their phone.
Whatever the cause, traffic safety, particularly for vulnerable road users, is an increasingly pressing issue.
Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.