• Dec 15, 2010
Automotive fatalities continue to drop year-over-year, which is perhaps not surprising in and of itself. What is surprising, however, is a study that notes a massive falloff in the number of motoring deaths. According to The Wall Street Journal, the total number of road fatalities in 2009 was 33,963 compared to 43,510 in 2005 – a 22 percent decline. That is the steepest rate of decline since automobiles entered mass production in the beginning part of the 20th century. So what gives?

According to a new study by a pair of University of Michigan researchers, it's certainly not the invasion of handheld technology, which the story says has created a rise in fatalities due to inattentive driving. Keeping our eyes on an incoming text message or email has resulted in a 42 percent rise in distracted-driving fatalities from 2005 to 2008. However, those accidents only account for a small portion of the total number of fatalities, and it's likely that with increased awareness that more deaths are being classified in this way.

Safety technology continues to improve, and new technologies continue to filtering down into more affordable vehicles. Deaths from side-impact crashes have declined more quickly than the decline rate for overall deaths, meaning that more people are surviving these types of accidents.

Another, more interesting, statistic is the drop in fatal accidents during rush hour driving periods. Why has that number fallen in recent years compared to 2005? According to the WSJ's theorizing, it's the economy. More folks out of work means fewer people on the road during rush hour. You just might not notice it when you are stuck in traffic screaming at the car in front of you that just cut you off to make its exit.

Regardless of why overall traffic fatalities are down, it's great to hear that this number is falling. However, as the economy picks back up, it's expected that traffic fatalities will as well.

[Source: The Wall Street Journal | Image:Chip Somodevilla/Getty]


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  • 39 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      People that are more likely to die in an accident(not wearing seatbelts, texting, other distracted driving, not using turnsignals, etc) have die off, its simple "survival of the fittest"
      • 4 Years Ago
      The handheld devices they blame in the piece also contribute to people being able to reschedule, say they'll be late, or find that last minute Christmas gift at the Walmart just down the street instead of the BestBuy in the next town.

      Basically information and communication help take the pressure off that causes people to speed or get aggitated while driving.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Has anyone thought of the potential connection to cash for clunkers? The elimination of older less-safe vehicles on the road may also play a major role in fatality reduction.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Even though deaths are down, 33,963 deaths on our nations highways is appauling. Unfortunately as a police officer, I see this first hand. Over my 12+ years of law enforcement I have seen far too much tradgedy.

      First off lets not call them accidents, they are crashes. Although they are not intentional, you can almost always find fault with at least one of the involved drivers. Even in inclimate weather, such as snow or ice, crashes are often caused by following too closely or driving too fast for the conditions. Excessive speed, aggressive driving and driving while impaired are still the leading causes of crashes.

      Vehicle safety advancements are continuing to evolve and are definatley a factor in the reduction of deaths. Although airbags are great, using your seatbelt is still one of the best things you can do. Your chances of not surviving a crash go up exponentionally if you are ejected or your head hits you windshield.

      A recent study suggested that states that have a hands free cell phone law have actually seen an increase in crashes. This is due to that people are now hiding there phones to avoid being caught, but as a result their eyes are furhter removed from the road. This is just my observation, but I see the reduction of rush hour deaths dropping as a result of congested highways and as a result the crashes are at much lower speeds.

      Another factor that is often overlooked in the reduction of deaths is the advancement in emergency medical care. Our nations paramedics, nurses and doctors are doing great things despite what you have heard of our health care system in America. These advancements have also been attributed to the reduction of deaths in violent crime. Just like in violent crime, overall crashes haven't gone down. People are just being saved our nations medical community and the statistics are scewed by that fact.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The economy didn't stagnate and recess in 2005.

      Imo, the strongest correlation is between gasoline demand and road fatalities. The US has been demanding less gasoline which means fewer miles driven since 2005. Less congestion = fewer road fatalities.

      Unemployment is not the cause unless unemployment is causing Americans to have less money to spend on gasoline.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Addendum: Employed people are driving less as well.
      • 4 Years Ago
      It could be because big fat vehicles have more cushion for the pushin'
        • 4 Years Ago
        You beat me to it.

        #1 Vehicles weigh more and have better crumple zones/survivability stats (thank you federal government)

        #2 Drunk Driving is not tolerated at all.

        #3 Most cars have been neutered and have smaller less powerful engines that people aren't speeding in (as much)

        #4 insurance rates are so extortious that most people think twice before engaging in risky/illegal behavior.
      • 4 Years Ago
      As an independant vehicle damage appraiser for 30 years now, I too have seen a drop not only in fatalities but also with accidents in general. When the economy sucks many folks are just more humble about things and seem to be more careful about life in genral. Gone (for now) are the days of "eat drink and be merry" for many in the population. I agree, when the economy gets fat again, the stats will change for the worse.
      • 4 Years Ago
      2005 was also before the spike in gasoline cost. Many have found ways to reduce their miles commuting to work in their cars whether mass transit or bicycles or whatever. I moved my office closer to home and now walk to work much of the time. Crashes per miles driven would certainly shed some light on the subject.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Fatalities per miles driven is a much more useful statistic. As cars became popular in the 20th century, fatalities skyrocketed decade by decade. This happened not because cars were suddenly turning into killing machines, but because many more people were out on the road. In the 80's, car safety features began to be introduced that led to an eventual decline in traffic fatalities, even though people continued to drive more and more miles. 2009 was the first year that the number of miles driven actually decreased, so it makes sense that fatalities would also decrease.

      tl;dr: http://pipeline.corante.com/Lemongraph.jpg
      • 4 Years Ago
      Why hypothesize about something when data is available?
      Metro areas of course keep stats on the numbers of vehicles on the roads at rush hour, etc...

      If you think the economy is so bad that rush hour traffic is depleted to the extent it can be the cause of these drops then lets see the numbers.

      Frankly it sounds hokey.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Speed kills. So many cars, so many drivers, average speed must be down as well in the cities at least.

        Although there seems to be rash of pedestrian and street racing deaths in MD lately...
        • 4 Years Ago
        Fewer teenagers and very new drivers are able to find work in this economy => the largest cause of accidents removed.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Aside from the very valid point about causation not being the same as correlation which jared made above, the basic premise put forth is that traffic is down due to the economy.

        All I am saying is that traffic statistics are kept.
        If you want to put forth that argument then why conjecture that traffic is down?
        There are numbers.
        Is traffic down or not?

        Now - if it is not down then the whole conversation become mute.
        If it is down, then we have that whole causation thing to worry about still.

        The reason I think the idea hokey is that I don't think the economy being down for the past year would affect traffic flow that much in general.
        • 4 Years Ago
        It seems plausible to me. Less cars, less chance of accidents. Since they report the number of accidents instead of a ratio of accidents to miles driven or to number of cars, I can see it happening. Actually, this news is about 1.5 years old. This has been already reported numerous times in more science-y magazines.

        Just curious, why do you think it the hypothesized reason is hokey?

        • 4 Years Ago
        Basic rule of statistics: correlation does not equal causation.
      • 4 Years Ago
      No matter what the reasons are, I'm glad its happening!
      Perosonally, I think its two major things which this Article states; safer cars, more technology. There was a study that Ford made, that people were less stressed with a car that had more technology. That makes a lot of sense to me (Onstar, Lo-Jack, ESP, Traction Control, Parking assist,etc)
      And the less stressed people are, the better decisions they make (normally) and being more careful.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Maybe for the general public. I prefer to tell my car what to do instead of the opposite, and I'll keep 3 pedals on the floor and no traction or vision aids as long as I can. I'm a firm believer that if we continue to rely on technology to do the thinking for us we become 'soft', forgetting basic instinct and common sense...but that's just my 2 cents. Your comment is still valid - people want to point their car and go without having to think about it.
        • 4 Years Ago
        akboss302

        that type of comment is akin to someone in the 90s saying "I don't need no stinkin' seat belts, I can brace myself". Time and time again, it's ignorance that dominates such a statement.

        These so-called electronic nannies such as ESC and and adaptive cruise control help the best of drivers. Don't tell me that in the 100s of hours you put in your car every year; you have not once looked away from the road or have been distracted slightly in your driving? Even Tiff Needell has shown how effective ESC is in emergency situations; unless you're saying you're a far more capable driver than Tiff is. You can still have a MT and most sporty cars allow ESC to be disabled for when you bring your car to the track.

        Also the argument that such electronic nannies might allow someone to become "soft", but these people are soft already! I'd rather have that soft person have ESC in their car and prevent a car accident than without the ESC causing a car accident.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yeah, for all the complaining enthusiasts often like to do about new safety features at the end of the day there's 10,000 more people who got to go home to their families. Kinda hard to ignore that.
        I've been in an accident myself that would have ended *way* worse if it weren't for the fact that I had bought a relatively new car that had just had it's crash structure improved immensely. And the only injury I had probably wouldn't even have happened in a newer vehicle since so many come with knee airbags now.
        I think the reason why you're finally seeing the fatalities drop now is because the average car on the road is about 9 years old, and it was around that time period in the early 2000's when a lot of car models had their safety in crashes improved immensely. Just look at some really popular cars: the Civic had a 2001 update that took it's IIHS crash rating from Acceptable to Good and so did the 2003/2004 Accord (the 04 with SAB fixed the poor side crash impact rating). And the most popular vehicle of them all, the F-150 had a 2004 update that took it's crash test rating all the way from Poor to Good. Just these models alone account for millions and millions of vehicles that saw huge improvements in their safety.
        I think as the older models start getting off the road things will keep improving. Things will probably get pretty good around 2015 since by then the average car would have been a mid-2000's model, where almost every car had stopped being a death trap.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Could it be that 150,000 people had their cars repoed that year?
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