• Mar 11th 2010 at 5:30PM
  • 19
Safety doesn't sell cars. At least that's what Detroit executives walked around saying back in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The whole of them were convinced that if you even mentioned the word "safety" in a marketing campaign it would imply that cars were unsafe. In fact, it took a crusader like Ralph Nader to stand up to the auto industry and say enough with the death traps, like he did when he published his infamous Unsafe at Any Speed (only one chapter is about the Corvair!) in 1965. Like him or loathe, if you've walked away from a serious car accident in the last forty or so years, you probably owe him.
And it looks like many more of us have been walking away from car accidents lately. According to a new report from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the death rate for calendar 2009 plummeted by a frankly significant 8.9-percent from 2008. 33,963 Americans were killed on our roads last year, as opposed to the 37,261 people that perished in 2008. Still terrible, but much, much better. In fact, 2009's fatality rate (measured with the totally morbid metric, "death per mile") is actually the lowest such rate since 1954. Were cars safer back then? No, not even kinda sorta. It's just that a much smaller percentage of the population drove back then. The Interstate system was still two years off, so road trips were rare and mostly for truckers and beatniks.

Why the drop in the death rate? Many factors. Cars are getting safer. More air bags, crumple zones, better construction techniques, stability control, better tire technology – all of it is adding up to help prevent accidents, or at least make them more survivable. Also, campaigns like "Click It or Ticket" have increased seatbelt usage, and cops nationwide are cracking down harder than ever on drunk drivers. However, there's one other reason the death rate fell so far in 2009: people drove less. Meaning that if our economy recovers and we start driving more, the death rate could – and probably will – increase. Make the jump to read the press release.

[Source: NHTSA | Image: Bantam Dell Publishing Group]
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Traffic Fatalities for 2009 Reach Record Low

Calendar Year 2009 Traffic Fatalities Continue Record Downward Trend

The U.S. Department of Transportation today announced that the number of overall traffic fatalities reported at the end of 2009 reached the lowest level since 1954, declining for the 15th consecutive quarter. According to early projections, the fatality rate, which takes into account the number of miles traveled, reached the lowest level ever recorded.

"This is exciting news, but there are still far too many people dying in traffic accidents," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Drivers need to keep their hands on the steering wheel and their focus on the road in order to stay safe."

The projected fatality data for 2009 places the highway death count at 33,963, a drop of 8.9 percent as compared to the 37,261 deaths reported in 2008. The fatality rate for 2009 declined to the lowest on record, to 1.16 fatalities per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) down from 1.25 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2008.

"This continuing decline in highway deaths is encouraging, but our work is far from over," said National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland. "We want to see those numbers drop further. We will not stop as long as there are still lives lost on our nation's highways. We must continue our efforts to ensure seat belts are always used and stay focused on reducing distracted and impaired driving."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributes the decline in 2009 to a combination of factors that include, high visibility campaigns like Click It or Ticket to increase seat belt use, and Drunk Driving. Over the Limit. Under Arrest which helps with the enforcement of state laws to prevent drunk driving and distracted driving. In addition, the decline is also the result of safer roads, safer vehicles and motorists driving less.

NHTSA annually collects crash statistics from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to produce annual reports on traffic fatality trends. The agency intends to update 2009 estimates regularly as more data becomes available. The final counts for 2009 will be made available in the summer of 2010. To view the preliminary fatality statistics visit: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811291.PDF

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      Corvairs still rule.
      • 5 Years Ago
      If people drove less then the # of miles driven would go down..therefore Death per Mile would go *up*.
      Of course if people drove less, maybe the # of deaths would go down...

      By citing that people drove less as a reason for DpM going down, the assumption would mean that the % of change in # of deaths went down more than the % of change in the # of miles driven
        • 5 Years Ago
        It's not 1:1. Many factors change the DpM and average miles driven correlation (fatigue, weekend travel, city vs. highway, etc.).

        There are also hugely important factors such as the cars being driven: Cash for Clunkers retired not only dirty, less efficient cars but less safe ones as well. The penetration of airbags and stability control, per driver, has skyrocketed in recent years and continues to go up despite the economic contraction. This change in safety technology penetration will affect the rates as much as anything.
        • 5 Years Ago
        It's not that people are driving less miles, it's which people are driving less miles.

      • 5 Years Ago
      Maybe it was Cash for Clunkers! Just kidding just kidding breathe breathe!
      • 5 Years Ago
      I remember reading that book when I was in junior high. Only the first chapter was about the Corvair (I used to own one, and am still in a local club). Other chapters covered everything from front seats in VW Beetles breaking loose from the floor in a rear-end collision (and potentially ejecting people through the rear window) to the pedestrian hazard posed by tailfins, like on the '59 Cadillac (not to mention its bullet taillights).
      • 5 Years Ago
      Great that everyone wants to take credit for the reduction, but won't share the blame if/when it goes back up again.

      The curious thing about safer cars is that people take more risks when driving them...we all know this when we see SUV drivers trying to go 60mph through a blizzard.

      It's probably more on line with the previously mentioned recession's job losses, but also everyone else who can't afford an insurance increase, or doesn't even have auto insurance, as they need that cash for the mortgage.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I'm a Transportation Engineer. I think my profession can justifiably take pride in this statistic.

      The fatalities are lower not only because cars are safer but the roads are also better designed. Tremendous progress has been made in the design of roads & highways. Crash barriers, guardrails, pavement material all have had a revolution of sorts in the past 20-30 years. And these techniques & knowledge is being disseminated across the world & we're learning from other countries as well.

      Maybe the public needs to appreciate the engineers who design cars & roads a little better?
      • 5 Years Ago
      ^ Yeap tbe unemployment and gas prices contributed to it.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Think of how much better the situation would be if people were actually required to demonstrate real driving skills before given the privelege of driving. Safer cars are part of the equation, but safer drivers are the ultimate solution. For the record, I like the Corvair and dislike Nader.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Fatalities are down because no one has a job to drive to.

      I hate Ralph Nader... with a passion. He's the reason cars are so heavy and overly complex these days.
      • 5 Years Ago
      As usual, variables missed in this are leading to incomplete view of the issue:

      The cars being driven changes all of this "miles driven" equation - Cash For Clunkers retired less-safe cars as well, further increasing the penetration of key safety technologies. The installed-base of ABS, airbags and stability control (per driver) has skyrocketed in recent years, including during the recession.

      This means that even as average miles per driver rises, we're not likely to see a 1:1 correlation in fatalities increase (nor will we ever, due to yet more external variables).
      • 5 Years Ago
      How much will it go up once the texting generation get their licenses?
      • 5 Years Ago
      The roads are much less busy because ~20% of the united states is unemployed.
      Pollution is down quite a bit also.

      Big suprise.
        • 5 Years Ago
        20%? Exaggerate much? Try about 9.5%.
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