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National Driving Death Toll Sharply Rises—Again

By: Bridget Clerkin November 2, 2017
After a sustained downswing in driving deaths, a U.S. government report shows they've now risen for a second consecutive year.

Americans were not only more likely to hit the road last year—they were more likely to die there. And the chilling statistics may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Traffic fatalities rose again in 2016, with 37,461 people killed in vehicle crashes last year, according to a recently released report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That figure marks a 5.6% increase from 2015’s grisly total of 35,485 deaths—itself a dramatic escalation from the previous year.

While the statistics show Americans traveled more in 2016—driving 2.2% more miles on average—the death tolls stemming from all manner of roadway incidents also grew, including a rise in fatalities related to drunk driving, speeding, and not wearing a seatbelt. (Motorcycle, bicycle, and pedestrian deaths also saw upticks from 2015, at 5.1%, 1.3%, and 9% respectively.)

Statistically, the youngest and oldest on the road were more likely to be involved in a fatal crash, with the rate rising 8.2% for those age 16 or younger and 6.6% for drivers 65 and older.

The numbers mark the second consecutive occasion of a year-over-year increase in traffic fatalities, with 2015 seeing the largest jump in the last 50 years. The figures also buck a nearly decade-long trend of decreasing deaths behind the wheel, which kicked off in 2007, when 41,259 were killed on the road.

While the NHTSA has posited that an increase in distracted driving is a major factor in the continual rise of roadway deaths, another recent report argues the issue could be even worse than the government agency’s statistics show. (In 2015, the NHTSA reported distracted driving resulted in 3,477 lives lost.)

The National Safety Council (NSC) issued a white paper earlier this month showing cell phone usage behind the wheel is widely underreported in accident investigations. Although the NHTSA found in 2015 that distraction and inattention were responsible for 44% of all driver-caused crashes, it’s proven difficult to pinpoint cell phone usage as the specific source of a driver’s divided attention.

Outside of hearing a direct confession, police officers are left with few options to name cell phones as the cause of an accident. According to the NSC report, many simplify the process by marking a more general—and easier-to-prosecute—offense, such as “Failure to keep in proper lane.”

Such discretionary tactics have led to inconsistent reporting on the cause of accidents, not just nationwide, but on a state-to-state basis, the NSC report argues. In one sample, it found just 40% of drivers were cited for being on their phone in an accident report, even after all of them spoke up about using their device behind the wheel.

And while many in the public sphere have turned to self-driving cars as an eventual answer to the problem, the technology is likely still years away from its ultimate realization. Hopefully, in the meantime, drivers will be able to dial down the distraction.

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