Traffic Fatalities Down; Motorized Traffic Still Violent and Deadly

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The Times reported on Saturday that traffic fatalities are down so far this year. That’s “only” 16,626 killed in the first half of 2009, where as at this time in 2008, more than 20,000 folks’ lives ended in traffic. You can find the full report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration here. When you read it, you’ll find that 142,204 people have died in traffic accidents since 2005. That’s not bad, considering the risk and the billions of miles traveled. But its still horrifying number. 1 is horrifying enough.

There are interesting reasons why we have “good news” of a slight drop in fatalities:

“Government officials and private experts cite a variety of factors. Highways are built or renovated with more consideration for safety. Seat belt use rose over the period, although some experts are skeptical about the accuracy of official counts. As old vehicles are retired, the ones that replace them have more air bags, antilock brakes and stability control systems, which sense when a car is in a skid and apply a brake to one wheel to help the driver regain control. In addition, new restrictions are in place for licenses for teenagers.”

“The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit trade group that performs crash tests, calculated that if car designs had been frozen in 1985, with no further safety improvements, death rates by 2004 would have been about 15 percent higher than was actually the case.”

What does this mean for cycling? The NHTSA reports that since 1932, about 52,000 “pedalcyclists” have lost their lives in traffic accidents. But while advances in motorized travel safety have limited the number of fatalities in motor vehicles in recent years, the bicycle remains the same basic vehicle it was in 1932. While there are debates about the utility of styrofoam helmets, it would be difficult to argue that their increased use in the United States hasn’t saved some lives (especially in the kind of alcohol-related accidents that cause a majority of traffic fatalities). I don’t believe they convey instant safety, and there are times I feel safer with one, sometimes without. Nevertheless, one sits astride a bicycle the same way they did when FDR was first elected – graceful, but vulnerable. Riding authoritatively, legally, and defensively can go a long way. But there are never guarantees.

The biggest concern for cyclists and pedestrians coming out of this data have to do with mobile communication. Reports indicate that 342,00 accidents are caused by cell phone use, while studies show that texting or talking on cell phones (hands free or not) simulate the driving of someone with a .08% blood/alcohol level. I don’t see why mobile communication use shouldn’t be absolutely banned while driving. This would make me more confident riding, especially at night when visibility is impaired. While we’re at it, lets ban driving in some areas, and make it harder to drive fast and more clear about the presence and rights of cyclists with green bike lanes and the like.

These numbers are unacceptable. Terrorist threats, with likely fatalities far smaller than the bloody numbers presented at the NHTSA, completely changed the way we fly. Why can’t the consistency of these statistics motivate change in terms of how we get around?



  1. Antoine

    A law banning the use of cell-phones in vehicles (without a hands-free kit) is coming into effect in New Zealand in November.

    A good idea but better driver-training in the first place would make me happier.

  2. Aaron

    What you said at the end is something that’s always blown me away as an instructor for a certain driver improvement program. That is, that driving is certainly extremely dangerous and more than 40,000 people a year are killed in the US. Despite this, people get downright vigilant when the laws are enforced. Have you ever had someone show up late to work, complaining about that “jerk cop” who gave them a speeding ticket?

    We rarely have deaths in the airline industry, yet people would flip out if we started scaling back the amount of regulation we have for pilot training and airline safety. I think driving safety laws should be STRICTLY enforced. That’s just far too many deaths each year.

  3. Beany

    I’m curious about the non-fatalities. The people involved in a auto-crash who are now suffering from some sort of lifetime paralysis or limited mobility or general inconvenience. I personally know of 3 people in San Diego since I arrived here 11 months ago that have been affected as victims of car crashes (lifetime physical therapy for example). Death, while horrible, isn’t the only way to measure the safety of a mode of transportation.

    One way to quickly make everyone a very safe driver, is to use Chris Rock’s suggestion for safety. Make driving very expensive: if every infraction was fined in amounts of $2000 and upward, I suspect everyone would become really cautious and careful as a driver. The state would make revenue and possibly balance the budget and I could breathe a little easier on my saddle.

  4. Esteban

    Beany – you raise an important point. These statistics don’t count the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of injuries caused in motor vehicle accidents. That number would be frightening. I might have to look for that.

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