Federal Report Finds Increasing Numbers of Traffic Deaths

With more driving comes a lot more deaths on the nation's roads. The question is why traffic deaths increase at a greater rate than vehicle miles traveled.
February 19, 2016, 2pm PST | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Joe Cortright analyses new data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showing "traffic related deaths are up 11.3 percent for the first nine months of 2015, as compared to the same period a year earlier."

Describing those findings as an "ominous trend," Cortright is willing to go further than the NHTSA in identifying a culprit for the increasing numbers of fatalities on the nation's roadways: the recent increase in driving.

What’s striking about the new NHTSA numbers is that road crash deaths are increasing much faster than total miles driven. As a result, the number of deaths per mile driven—which has been declining for decades—jumped up in the first three quarters of 2015, from 1.05 deaths per 100 million miles to 1.10 deaths per 100 million miles.

Cortright notes that the relationship between vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and driving deaths isn't new. In fact, " the same kind of disproportionate change occurred when gas prices increased in 2007-08. At that time, miles driven fell sharply—and traffic deaths fell even faster. In 2008, total vehicle miles traveled declined by 0.7% and in 2009, they declined a further 1.5 percent."

Cortright isn't alone in analyzing these trends, searching for the reasons why the relationship between traffic deaths and VMT is non-linear. Angie Schmitt reported on the same statistics for Streetsblog USA, sharing the theory of David Levinson about why deaths increase so much when VMT increases: "when gas prices fall, collisions rise faster than mileage because people who don’t ordinarily drive much, like teenagers, start driving more." Cortright also mentions research that shows high fuel prices inspire some motorists to slow down, thus reducing the number of fatal collisions.

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Published on Monday, February 15, 2016 in City Observatory
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