Feds: U.S. traffic fatalities on the rise in 2015

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Federal officials estimate traffic fatalities are on track to substantially increase in 2015, following a record-low of Americans dying in vehicles in 2014.

The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Tuesday announced 32,675 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2014, a 0.1 percent decrease from the previous year. The fatality rate fell to a record-low of 1.07 deaths per million vehicle miles traveled.

But estimates for the first six months of 2015 show a troubling increase in the number of fatalities. This year, officials estimate 2015 fatalities are up 8.1 percent from the same period last year: 21,022 Americans died in vehicles in 2014 – the lowest number since data began being collected in 1975. While cyclist deaths also declined, the number of pedestrians killed rose by 3.1 percent from 2013 and is on track to possibly increase more than 10 percent in 2015.

NHTSA cautioned that while partial-year estimates are more volatile and subject to revision, the estimated increase represents a troubling departure from a general downward trend. Part of the increase is due to the fact that U.S. drivers are on pace to drive a record number of miles in 2015 because of cheaper gas prices. That’s in addition to increased distractions such as cellphone usage while driving.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind called the rising statistics “wake-up calls.” He said the essentially flat numbers in 2014 were “unsatisfactory” and the potential 2015 increase is “unacceptable.”

“It really is time for our nation to get serious about the epidemic of death that is on our roadways,” he told media during a conference call on Tuesday. Rosekind called for individual states to do more —from increasing sobriety checkpoints to mandating stricter seat belt laws.

NHTSA research shows that in an estimated 94 percent of crashes, the critical cause is a human factor. In contrast, vehicle-related factors are the critical reason in about 2 percent of crashes. Distracted driving accounted for 10 percent of all crash fatalities, killing 3,179 people in 2014.

While final 2015 numbers and a breakdown of factors in the year’s fatalities will not be available until next year, NHTSA experts noted that job growth and low fuel prices could be a factor, not only in increased driving overall, but in increased leisure driving and driving by young people, which can contribute to higher fatality rates.

The Federal Highway Administration said Americans drove a record 1.54 trillion miles in the first six months of 2015, passing the previous record — 1.5 trillion — set in June 2007. The nation’s driving has steadily increased for 16 consecutive months.

“Everyone with a responsibility for road safety — the federal, State and local governments, law enforcement, vehicle manufacturers, safety advocates and road users — needs to reassess our efforts to combat threats to safety,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement. “U.S. DOT will redouble our efforts on safety and we expect our partners to do the same.”

NHTSA, Rosekind said, will host a series of meetings across the country early next year to address behavioral safety issues on roadways, including drunken, drugged, distracted and drowsy driving; speeding; failure to use safety features such as seat belts and child seats; and new initiatives to protect vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists

“Specifically, we’re looking for what new approaches and initiatives are out there that we can launch to reach see real, lasting improvements in safety,” Rosekind said. “We need to do it more, and we need to do it better.”

Safety officials from across the country will gather in Washington, D.C., in March following the meetings to develope a “strategic action plan based on what has been learned.”

NHTSA has launched a series of safety initiatives in recent months, including efforts to speed technology innovations that can improve safety and the agency’s first comprehensive effort to fight drowsy driving.


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By the numbers

■Drunk-driving crashes continue to represent roughly one-third of fatalities, resulting in 9,967 deaths.

■49 percent of passenger vehicle occupants killed were not wearing seat belts.

■The number of motorcyclists killed was far higher in states without strong helmet laws, resulting in 1,565 lives lost.

■Cyclist deaths declined by 2.3 percent, but pedestrian deaths rose by 3.1 percent from the previous year. In 2014, there were 726 cyclists and 4,884 pedestrians killed in motor vehicle crashes.

■Distracted driving accounted for 10 percent of all crash fatalities, killing 3,179 people in 2014.

■Drowsy driving accounted for 2.6 percent of all crash fatalities; at least 846 people died in these crashes in 2014.