DOT: Traffic Death Rate Falls to Record Low

Fatality and injury data from 2010 show that highway deaths fell to 32,885 for the year, the lowest level since 1949.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Dec. 8 announced updated 2010 fatality and injury data showing that highway deaths fell to 32,885 for the year, the lowest level since 1949. The record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities occurred as American drivers traveled nearly 46 billion more miles during the year, an increase of 1.6 percent over the 2009 level.

“While we have more work to do to continue to protect American motorists, these numbers show we’re making historic progress when it comes to improving safety on our nation’s roadways,” LaHood said. “Thanks to the tireless work of our safety agencies and partner organizations over the past few decades, to save lives and reduce injuries, we’re saving lives, reducing injuries, and building the foundation for what we hope will be even greater success in the future.”

The updated information released by the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates 2010 also saw the lowest fatality rate ever recorded, with 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2010, down from 1.15 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2009. Other key statistics include:

  • Fatalities declined in most categories in 2010, including for occupants of passenger cars and light trucks (including SUVs, minivans, and pickups).
  • Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers dropped 4.9 percent in 2010, taking 10,228 lives compared to 10,759 in 2009.
  • Fatalities rose among pedestrians, motorcycle riders, and large truck occupants.

NHTSA also unveiled a new measure of fatalities related to distracted driving today, called “distraction-affected crashes.” Introduced for 2010 as part of a broader effort by the agency to refine its data collection to get better information about the role of distraction in crashes, the new measure is designed to focus more narrowly on crashes in which a driver was most likely to have been distracted. While NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) previously recorded a broad range of potential distractions, such as careless driving and cell phone present in the vehicle, the new measure focuses on distractions that are most likely to affect crash involvement, such as distraction by dialing a cell phone or texting and distraction by an outside person/event. New data released by NHTSA using its refined methodology show an estimated 3,092 fatalities in distraction-affected crashes in 2010.

In an effort to focus on crashes in which alcohol was most likely to be a causative factor, NHTSA introduced another new measure, “alcohol-impaired driving crashes,” with a more narrow definition including only those crashes in which a driver or motorcycle rider had a blood alcohol level of .08 or above, the legal limit in every state.

While the explicit change in methodology means the new measure cannot be compared to the 5,474 “distraction-related” fatalities reported in 2009, other NHTSA data offer some indication that driver distraction continues to be a significant problem. The agency’s nationwide observational survey of drivers in traffic remains unchanged between 2009 and 2010, with 5 percent of drivers seen talking on handheld phones. In addition, given ongoing challenges in capturing the scope of the problem—including individuals’ reluctance to admit behavior, lack of witnesses, and in some cases the death of the driver—NHTSA believes the actual number of crashes that involve distracted driving could be higher.

A new national NHTSA survey offers additional insights into how drivers behave when it comes to texting and cell phone use while behind the wheel and their perceptions of the safety risks of distracted driving. Survey respondents indicated they answer calls on most trips; they acknowledge few driving situations when they would not use the phone or text; and yet they feel unsafe when riding in vehicles in which the driver is texting and they support bans on texting and cell phone use. These findings provide further evidence that distracted driving is a complex problem that is both hard to measure and difficult to address given conflicting public attitudes and behaviors.

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