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USDOT: Traffic fatalities fell to record-breaking lows in 2009

Posted by on September 9th, 2010 at 9:32 am

National Bike Summit - Day two-5

Ray LaHood.
(Photo © J. Maus)

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced today that the latest traffic data shows “major, across the board declines” in all categories of fatalities and the lowest numbers in six decades.

Updated fatality and injury data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that there were 33,808 motor vehicle fatalities in 2009, a decline of 9.7 percent and the lowest number since 1950. This decline occurred estimated vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased by 0.2 percent over 2008. The number of people killed while riding their bicycles dropped 12 percent, from 718 deaths in 2008 to 630 deaths in 2009.

Graphic from newly updated national traffic fatality statistics. Download a PDF summary of the numbers here.

This is great news biking and walking advocates, not just because fewer people are dying, but because the numbers boost Sec. LaHood’s profile, and he’s been a big supporter of active transportation. LaHood has also made national headlines for his dedication to fighting distracted driving, an issue that has a direct impact on the safety of all road users. LaHood has also announced his second Distracted Driving Summit, which will take place on September 21st in Washington, D.C.

Also good news for vulnerable road users is that the number of alcohol impaired driving fatalities declined by 7.4 percent in 2009.

At a press conference today at US DOT headquarters in Washington D.C., NHTSA Administrator David Strickland gave credit to how “pedestrian-focused efforts” might have played a role in the improved safety data.

“We have begun a number of pedestrian-focused efforts, and they seem to be working. It’s good to know that these numbers are going down even while the Secretary has encouraged more and more pedestrian activity through his livability initiative. So we’ve got more people walking more miles more safely.”

Also at the press conference, Sec. LaHood said, “It’s a remarkable accomplishment – a landmark achievement for public health and safety.”

“It’s a remarkable accomplishment – a landmark achievement for public health and safety.”
— Ray LaHood, US Secretary of Transportation

While these numbers are positive, America has a long way to go before our traffic safety record is something to celebrate. Even with these record low numbers, 92 people still die every day from motor vehicle crashes. In his remarks today, Sec. LaHood acknowledged that there is a lot more work to do. “Almost 34,000 deaths on our roadways is still unacceptable. And while we’ve come a long way, we have a long distance yet to travel.”

LaHood also gave a few reasons he suspects are behind the lower numbers. In addition to safer cars, better engineered roadways, and a growing awareness of distracted driving, he also said the economy is a “contributing factor”. Below is an excerpt from his remarks this morning:

“While more vehicles than ever are on our streets and highways — and while Americans are driving those vehicles a greater number of miles than ever before — we believe that “discretionary driving” is on the decline. Because of the economic downturn, fewer people may be going out for after-work or evening entertainment, which the data suggest are higher-risk trips than the daily commute.”

LaHood acknowledged that as the economy rebounds, the numbers might creep up again, but he says historically they have never come all the way back up. “This is good news, but it’s not an excuse to rest on our laurels.”

In Oregon, we had 416 fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2008 and 377 in 2009 for a decline of 9.4 percent.

Download a PDF summary of the latest traffic fatality and injury data here.

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  • Elliot September 9, 2010 at 9:46 am

    Wow, the 1973 oil crisis is plain as day on that graph.

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  • Spiffy September 9, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Ray says that people are driving more but I see here that we are driving less… so less driving means less accidents…

    it makes sense that people are driving less with the economy suffering… and they make cars safer to crash so that people don’t have to improve their driving…

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  • Stig September 9, 2010 at 10:42 am

    This doesn’t prove at that roads are any safer at all.

    -Through the years cars have been designed more for safety. Air bags, ABS brakes, crash testing etc.
    -Emergency response and hospital facilities have also improved over the years, reducing deaths.

    It would be more interesting to see these numbers with serious injuries factored in or collisions, not just fatalities.

    With mobile technology, longer hours and tighter schedules- fatigue and distraction are definitely big modern factors in the death toll but are more likely to cause greater impact to the number of collisions and serious injuries than deaths alone given vehicle safety and medical response improvements.

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  • Spiffy September 9, 2010 at 11:20 am

    It would be more interesting to see these numbers with serious injuries factored in or collisions, not just fatalities.

    actually on page 2 in figure 4 it shows the “Number of Crashes, by Crash Type” and it includes non-fatal broken down into injury and property-only crashes…

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  • 9watts September 9, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Elliot at #1 “Wow, the 1973 oil crisis is plain as day on that graph.”

    Yep. And just wait till Peak Oil registers. 🙂

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  • matt picio September 9, 2010 at 11:52 am

    Stig (#3) – There have been no significant auto safety improvements in the last 10 years. You’re still correct, though, because what has happened in the last 10 years is the auto fleet has shed the older, less safe cars and added many more vehicles with ABS, airbags, and crumple zones.

    Agreed on medical / response – this doesn’t prove the roads are safer. There are far too many variables to consider to make a blanket statement like that.

    Elliott & 9watts – also clearly visible are the 1979-80 oil crisis, and the 1991 recession. Oddly enough, the graph doesn’t react as one would expect with the enacting of the National Maximum Speed Limit Law in 1974, or its modification in 1987.

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  • Stig September 9, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks I’m taking a look through the PDF. The downward trend in injury rate is much more ‘relaxed’ if that’s the right word compared to fatalities.

    Matt: We all know speed limits are routinely ignored by 10-15 mph. The only thing that really works to slow people down to a safe speed is the perception of risk.

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  • jim September 9, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    I read yesterday that in Bejing there are 1,300 more cars everyday, (“christian science monitor” at the doctors office). they were talking about the increase of mega cities around the globe…

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  • jim September 9, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I think the newer cars are much safer nowdays, the deq tests have also removed a lot of older cars from the road

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  • 9watts September 9, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    newer cars are generally safer per mile driven for those inside.

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  • GlowBoy September 9, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Matt picio (#6), I would argue that there have been MAJOR improvements in new vehicle safety in the past 10 years. Unlike ABS, ESC has shown to demonstrably reduce injury and death rates, and has gone from being a very niche technology to mandatory as of the next model year. In a decade we’ve gone from TWO airbags being standard in the typical mainstream car to SIX or EIGHT. In particular there have been enormous improvements in side crash safety: very few pre-2000 cars could do better than 3-4 stars in side impact ratings, and now 5 stars (which is 1-2 orders of magnitude better) is pretty standard. Front crash protection and crumple zones have continued to improve, while rear crash protection has improved very substantially. Tires and suspensions have also improved considerably, leaving today’s average new car capable of braking and cornering considerably better than a decade ago, improving the ability to avoid crashes.

    I do agree that many older, less safe vehicles have been retired, improving the overall safety of the fleet.

    But while vehicle safety has improved, driver safety has not. Distractions have become much more pervasive. In the last 20 years we’ve seen a fundamental cultural shift from safety being viewed as the responsibility of the driver to the responsibility of the vehicle. And as per capita VMT have gone up (people drive more), so have average speeds.That’s still bad news for vulnerable roadway users.

    Speaking of whom: cyclist deaths actually increased in the past year, from 701 to 718. Pedestrian deaths declined somewhat, but not at the same rate as the overall body count. The good news is, of course, that the number of bicyclists has gone up a lot over the last few years, which means the death rate per mile bicycled has almost certainly gone down.

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  • Opus the Poet September 9, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    When I click on the FARS link I still get 2008 as the latest available data, what gives? The PDF has been out since June in one form or another, why hasn’t the web site been updated?

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  • Did I miss it? Again? September 9, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Improvements in the last 10 years could also include:
    Braking systems
    Traction control systems
    Tire design including compounds
    Brake pad construction
    Microprocessors (as used above)
    Basic vehicle construction (to include advances in crumple zone design, center of gravity, weight distribution, etc.)
    More vehicles AWD/4wd

    Just to name a few.

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  • jim September 9, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    the down side of all of these improvements are is that cars are more sporty to drive. you see people just whiping around the corners in their minivans, the chevy vans in the 70s didnt handle like that, people are at full speed 30 ft from an intersection before they stand on the brakes…
    A new toyata will outperform an old ferrari. people drive them like that too….

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  • matt picio September 9, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Stig (#7) – Agreed, but when the law was passed in ’74 there was a lot of additional enforcement, yet the rate of decline slowed, which seems counterintuitive.

    GlowBoy (#11) – Side impact – that’s a good point, thanks. I don’t know if I accept the tires & suspension argument – arguably those advances along with ABS have encouraged drivers to be less careful and overconfident in their equipment. I feel enough so to offset the benefits provided.

    As for driver safety, that’s kind of what I was getting at with the “too many factors” statement. Driver distractions in the vehicle are far more numerous than they were in 1980, for example – and soundproofing in modern automobiles has effectively removed the sense of hearing from accident avoidance.

    Did I miss it? Again? (#13) – I’ll acknowledge that those are improvements, but argue that they’re incremental. (i.e. “not significant” as I said) GlowBoy is right about side impact protection, though – that *is* significant. The incremental improvements certainly have an effect – I’m just saying not enough of one to be obvious in the graphs & statistics. I think at this point in automotive safety, the larger factors are road design, inattentive / unskilled drivers, and environmental factors. The car is a pretty mature piece of technology, the innovations that greatly improved safety are largely done.

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  • matt picio September 9, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Which doesn’t mean that no additional innovation will occur, nor that we shouldn’t invest in it. That stuff in the car that foamed up in the movie “Demolition Man” would be pretty cool, if it doesn’t suffocate the driver & passengers. 🙂

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  • GlowBoy September 9, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    I completely agree that many of the improvements in vehicle safety have led drivers to be more confident, and led them to be faster and more aggressive, in many ways offsetting the gains.

    Death rates should have gone down far more than they have. Especially when you consider that DUIs account accounted for half of fatalities 30 years ago and are now down to a third. It may be that the number fatalities caused by sober drivers has actually gone UP since then.

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  • John September 10, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    It’s a great trend, but in all other aspects, it’s astounding that the American death equivalent of ten 9/11s equals “good news”.

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  • Red Five September 10, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    this guy was part of the Toyota smear campaign to bolster General Obama Motors. He’s not very credible.

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