U.S. Sees First Increase in Auto Accident Fatalities Since 2005

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released a finalized report on motor vehicle crashes and fatalities in 2012. Following six consecutive years of declines in fatalities, the United States saw a 3.3 percent increase in 2012. On the nation’s roads, 33,561 people lost their lives in 2012, compared with the 32,479 who died in 2011. An estimated 2.36 million people were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2012, compared with 2.22 million in 2011 — an increase of 6.5 percent.

The good news is that auto accident fatalities are still well below the recent highs recorded in 2005. That year, there were 43,510 deaths on American roads. This year’s figures represent the first statistically significant increase since 1995.

In addition to these fatality totals, auto accident fatalities can also be usefully measured as a rate per miles traveled. After all, if the total number of miles traveled rises or falls, one would expect the number of injuries and deaths to move in the same direction. It turns out that the fatality rate rose by nearly the same percentage as the overall number of deaths. The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) rose from 1.10 to 1.14 — an increase of 3.6 percent. The injury rate rose somewhat more steeply, from 75 to 80 per 100 million VMT — an increase of 6.7 percent.

The report noted that no one particular factor accounted for a large portion of the increase in deaths. In fact, crashes associated with some high-risk factors decreased in 2012. For instance, fatal crashes involving young drivers have continued to decline, as they have since 2005.

However, fatalities among motorcyclists, pedestrians and pedalcyclists increased at rates slightly higher than those of the overall 3.3 percent fatality increase. Motorcyclist deaths increased by 7.1 percent, pedestrian deaths by 6.4 percent and pedalcyclist deaths by 6.5 percent.

Fatalities involving alcohol-impaired driving increased by 4.6 percent in 2012. Particularly notable is the fact that crashes in which one or more drivers were legally intoxicated account for nearly one third of total deaths on the road. When one considers that the vast majority of drivers never drive drunk, and even those who do engage in such reckless behavior tend not to do so very often, it is plain to see that drunk drivers die (and cause deaths) at an astronomically higher rate than sober drivers.

Although an increase in fatal accidents is discouraging, the NHTSA report must be viewed in a larger context. Deadly crashes have fallen at a significant rate for several years. The nation continues to make headway in road safety. When the statistics for 2013 and beyond begin to be tallied, we may very well learn that last year’s numbers were simply an anomaly in a long downtrend.