Traffic Fatalities Jump as Drivers Increasingly Must Share the Road

Traffic Fatalities Jump as Drivers Increasingly Must Share the Road

  • Preliminary figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that last year there were 42,915 traffic fatalities in the U.S.—the highest in 16 years.
  • The overall number includes pedestrians hit by motor vehicles and cyclists.
  • The highest increases occurred on rural interstates, urban arterials, and urban collector/local streets.

    Traffic fatality data were looking pretty good a decade ago. While “zero” is the only acceptable number, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that fatalities had fallen to 32,367 for calendar year 2011, down from 32,885 in 2010 (it was 37,261 in 2008, the year of high gas prices and the beginning of the Great Recession), growing research into autonomous vehicle technology had us believing we might be able to hit zero by the late 2020s.

    But after six years in the low 30s, the NHTSA number jumped to 35,092 in ‘15, then to 37,461 in ‘16.

    Preliminary figures NHTSA released this week report that last year there were 42,915 traffic fatalities in the U.S., up 10.5 percent from 38,824 in 2020—and the highest in 16 years.

    That 2020 number is up 7.5 percent from 2019, by the way. These fatality rates are absolute, whether we drive more miles per year or less, as in during the Great Recession and again for at least a year from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

    NHTSA parses this out. Fatalities per 100 million miles were higher in all of 2021 than in 2020—when so many of us weren’t even leaving the house, and global oil prices briefly fell below $0 per barrel—though the rate of fatalities per 100 million miles was lower for the second, third, and fourth-quarters of 2021, compared with Q2, Q3, and Q4 of 2020.

    Motorcyclist fatalities were up 9 percent, while pedestrian fatalities were up 13 percent. Pedacyclist fatalities were up 5 percent.

    Phynart StudioGetty Images

    Those 43,000 fatalities are not all drivers and/or passengers, of course; the overall number includes pedestrians hit by motor vehicles and cyclists—both motor- and “pedalcyclists,” as NHTSA calls them—that collide with cars and trucks. NHTSA also breaks out types of crashes and times and locations of fatalities (though with no breakout of smartphone-related crashes).

    Using the 10.5 percent increase for ’21 as the under-over mark, “speeding related” fatalities were up only 5 percent, which means they made up a smaller proportion of overall fatalities, although NHTSA adds both these rates are “still higher as compared to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.”

    These types of fatalities all were higher than the 10.5 percent overall increase: rural interstates, +15 percent; urban arterials, +15 percent; urban collector/local, +20 percent.

    Fatalities of unbelted vehicle occupants rose 3 percent, and of police-reported alcohol involvement up 5 percent, but again, both up from 2019.

    Motorcyclist fatalities were up 9 percent, while pedestrian fatalities were up 13 percent.

    Pedacyclist fatalities were up 5 percent. Result of millions of local, state, and federal dollars spent on urban bike lanes? Perhaps, but those bike lanes would only be a start.

    fhwa complete streets strategy

    In a report to Congress last March, the Federal Highway Administration outlined its Complete Streets strategy. It addressed House Appropriations Committee concerns “about recent increases in cyclist and pedestrian fatalities” and “encourages the adoption of a complete streets design model in which roads and streets are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including but not limited to pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders across a broad spectrum of ages and abilities.”

    This is not overzealous Washington bureaucrats trying to kill the car, but it may be another sign of “peak car.”

    Even before the pandemic, many city planners had begun to replace high-rise roads and urban highways built up since the 1950s (and many of them used to divide poor minority neighborhoods) with pedestrian-friendly spaces. For the first time since at least World War II, personal passenger vehicles are not the priority of urban planning.

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