Traffic Fatalities Take Mysterious Downturn

Feb 08, 2011

crashed windsheildThe number of total U.S. road fatalities dropped in 2009 to 33,963, down 22% from 43,510 in 2005. That's the fastest rate of decline in traffic deaths in peacetime since the dawn of automotive mass production in 1913.

A new study by two University of Michigan researchers of detailed federal crash statistics from 2005 to 2008 suggests all these reasons could be behind the reduced death toll.

The federal highway fatality data analyzed by University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle suggest that talking and texting behind the wheel are a smaller problem than, for instance, motorcycle deaths.

Sivak and Schoettle found that in 2005, 2,369 fatal accidents were blamed on "inattentive" driving–including eating, talking or using a phone. By 2008, inattentive driving was blamed for 3,366 deadly crashes.

By comparison, the number of fatalities involving motorcycles grew by 14% to 5,129 deaths in 2008 from 4,492 in 2005. The researchers noted this trend is consistent with rising motorcycle ownership among "middle-aged men with little or no prior experience."

So what's helping to reduce deaths? Technology deserves some credit, according to the data. Deaths in side-impact crashes declined between 2005 and 2008 at a faster rate than the decline for deaths overall. That suggests that side airbags are helping more people survive crashes, the researchers found.

The Michigan study found a nearly 20% decline in deaths among young drivers, age 16 to 25. Among the possible reasons: the increasing number of states that use graduated licensing programs that delay granting full driving privileges until teens have more experience, and rising teen joblessness.

The exact role of the economy in declining highway deaths is a big unknown. Messrs. Sivak and Schoettle highlight pieces of data that suggest that as the economy slowed down, so did motorists.

Fatal accidents during rush hours also declined more sharply than overall deaths. The 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. morning rush claimed 3,236 lives nationwide in 2008, down 16.7% from 2005. Deaths between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. fell by nearly 18%. The deadliest hours on the road? The period between 6 p.m. and 8:59 p.m. —still the rush hour in many cities. In 2008, 5,342 people died in crashes during those hours, down 13.1% from 2005.

[via The Wall Street Journal]

Photo courtesy of big-ashb and re-used under the Creative Commons license.