NHTSA’s New Traffic-Safety Data: Vehicles Are Winning, Pedestrians and Cyclists Are Losing

Road safety is up in general, but statistics for truckers and non-vehicular traffic aren’t looking good.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released its latest data dump on the state of America’s road safety, and for the second year in a row, the statistics are looking up. Well, the stats, which cover calendar-year 2018, are looking up generally, and more specifically for cars and their drivers. Fatalities among occupants of light vehicles (cars, trucks, and SUVs) were down by single-digit percentages versus 2017. The data paints a different picture for the occupants of large trucks, pedestrians, and cyclists.

In 2018, fatalities among pedestrians rose 3.4 percent, which translates to an additional 208 deaths versus the year before. Cyclists saw an even bigger leap in deaths—6.3 percent—meaning an extra 51 bikers died on U.S. roadways last year versus the previous year. An additional seven occupants of large trucks lost their lives last year, a marginal increase of 0.8 percent over 2017’s death toll. According to NHTSA, the “proportion of people killed ‘inside the vehicle'(passenger car, light truck, large truck, bus, and other vehicle occupants) has declined from a high of 80 percent in 1996 to 66 percent in 2018.” Meanwhile, the agency adds, “the proportion of people killed ‘outside the vehicle’ (motorcyclists, pedestrians, pedalcyclists, and other nonoccupants) has increased from a low of 20 percent in 1996 to a high of 34 percent in 2018.”

These increases in non-occupant fatalities stand in contrast to overall road fatalities, which fell by 2.4 percent to a still-staggering 36,560 last year. Overall road deaths are trending in a good direction, too; after two straight years of sharp increases in traffic deaths in 2014 and 2015, the toll began falling in 2016 (by 0.9 percent). More good news, at least, provided you’re behind the wheel of a light vehicle, and not a large truck or riding a bike or walking? The decrease in overall road fatalities in 2018 coincided with an overall 0.3-percent increase in miles traveled. Even more critically, the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled decreased by 3.4 percent, from 1.17 deaths per 100 million miles to 1.13.

NHTSA offers no hard rulings as to what’s causing the uptick in pedestrian and cyclist deaths, though it does offer clues. For example, increasingly dense urban populations more amenable to car-free forms of mobility is probably the key driver behind the rise in non-occupant fatalities. Per NHTSA, urban population growth stood at 13 percent between 2017 and 2018. And since 2009, urban pedestrian deaths have increased 69 percent (!) while urban cyclist fatalities rose by 48 percent over the same period.

Even while more and more new cars are sold with automated emergency braking systems and crash detection setups that can recognize pedestrians and cyclists in addition to other cars and objects, walkers and bikers are getting mowed down. Remember, there are far more cars out on the road without those features, and a huge proportion of modern drivers are distracted. So, what’s being done about this problem? McClatchy’s D.C. bureau reports that lawmakers in Washington are looking at taking steps to curb those fatalities that go beyond the distracted-driving laws already on the books in many states. In the House of Representatives, congresspeople are working on legislation that could address the issue in myriad ways, from softer vehicle noses to adjustments to street designs that better separate cars, people, and bikes. States are similarly tackling their own initiatives to cut down on these worrying pedestrian and cyclist trends. So, should you stop walking or biking? Of course not, but you should aim to be more aware of your surroundings while near traffic. As for drivers, for the love of all things safe, please stop texting, web surfing, and dating-app swiping and keep your eyes up while driving—especially in urban areas.


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