Other Voices

American roads are getting safer, but we can all still do more to protect lives

Safety is always No. 1 at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Stopping the fatalities that occurs on America’s roads is our greatest, ongoing transportation safety challenge.

So it is encouraging to see in newly released traffic crash data that 2018 marked the second consecutive year of declining crash fatalities. Initial estimates for the first-half of 2019 are also trending in a positive direction.

The newly released Fatality Analysis Reporting System data for 2018 show that traffic fatalities overall declined by 2.4 percent. The fatality rate (per vehicle miles traveled) decreased by 3.4 percent.

Also, 10% fewer children aged 14 and younger were killed; alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities declined 3.6 percent; speeding-related fatalities declined 5.7 percent; and motorcyclist fatalities declined 4.7 percent (to 4,985).

It’s good news that 913 fewer lives were lost last year than the previous year. But 36,560 men, women and children were killed in traffic crashes in 2018. In Texas, 3,642 lives were lost.

Nationally, nearly 3 million adults and children were injured — many in life-altering ways. The annual economic cost of motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. is more than $240 billion.

Nearly all of those crashes were preventable. More than 90% of serious traffic crashes involve human error – such as paying attention to your phone instead of the road, driving while impaired, speeding and other reckless driving behaviors.

Pedestrians, bicyclists and those riding e-scooters or pedal-driven vehicles also must be more careful. Drivers have to be more watchful for these extremely vulnerable road users. In 2018, pedestrian fatalities increased 3.4% (to 6,482) and pedalcyclist fatalities increased 6.5% (to 859) — the highest for both since 1990.

Stop signs, traffic lights, turn signals, speed limits and crosswalks are for everyone’s benefit and safety, yet frequently ignored.

Such unsafe behavior in the presence of other road users is a particularly deadly mix. Urban traffic fatalities have increased by 34% since 2009, far out of proportion to the 14% increase in vehicle miles traveled in urban areas. Since 2009 in urban areas, pedestrian fatalities increased 69%; bicyclist fatalities increased 48%; and motorcyclist fatalities increased 33%.

Additionally, rural areas continue to suffer a traffic fatality rate twice that of urban areas.

Behavioral changes, vehicle safety innovations, and improved infrastructure are the keys to preventing traffic crashes. For several decades, there have been extensive, ongoing safety efforts by government, by law enforcement, advocates and vehicle manufacturers. All have been working to make people safer drivers, to produce safer vehicles, and to improve infrastructure.

Advancements in emergency medical services and trauma care have also contributed to a reduction in traffic fatalities.

When crashes occur, vehicle safety innovations, including seatbelts and air bags, have improved the odds of survival. More than 90% of Americans now wear seatbelts. But among motor vehicle occupants killed in traffic crashes, fewer than half were wearing seatbelts.

We also know that, thanks in large measure to the Department of Transportation’s efforts, new vehicles today are safer than ever when crashes occur. More new vehicles are equipped with advanced safety technologies that can prevent or reduce the severity of crashes in the first place.

Unfortunately, our fleet is the oldest in history right now. But if we can help more families afford new vehicles, we expect to see significant safety improvements.

The result of these comprehensive efforts to save lives has been encouraging: traffic fatalities have declined 33 percent since 1972. That’s remarkable, especially considering that there has been a 156 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled.

The fatality rate in 1972 was nearly four times higher than it is today. Our roads are much safer than they were 50 years ago, but we still have a long way to go.

Everyone has a role to play in making America’s roads safer. And many reasons to do so — some of whom may be sitting around your dinner table.

Elaine L. Chao is U.S. secretary of transportation.
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