The annual report on deadly motor vehicle crashes in the US is usually a pretty depressing read. The last couple years have been especially morbid, with traffic deaths rising at an alarming rate year-over-year. And even though the latest report, released Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, contained a few slivers of optimism — slightly fewer people were killed in 2017 compared to the year prior — there were still enough startling statistics to make the overall picture of public roads in America exceedingly grim.
There were 37,133 people killed in car crashes in 2017, a 1.8 percent decrease from last year’s total. This is notable considering total deaths were up 6.5 percent in 2016, and an alarming 8.4 percent in 2015. This decrease is the first since 2013. The numbers are still too high, but at least they appear to be leveling off, if slightly declining. Fatalities decreased in almost all segments of the population, with the exception of crashes involving large trucks and SUVs. (We’ll get back to that in a moment.)
An important number is the amount of traffic deaths per mile driven. If people are driving more miles, it’s considered natural that traffic crashes (and then fatalities) would increase as well, as long as technology and behavior remain the same. But while vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased 1.2 percent in 2017, the fatality rate per 100 million VMTs decreased by 2.5 percent.
The trend lines for the first half of 2018 are looking even better. In the first six months of this year, an estimated 17,120 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes — 3.1 percent less than the first half of 2017. The fatality rate for the first half of 2018 is down too, 1.08 fatalities per 100 million VMT compared to 1.12 fatalities per 100 million VMT in the first half of 2017. So that’s also pretty encouraging.
Here are a few stats that are anything but: more people in cities are being killed in car crashes, and the number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed by automobile drivers is at a 20-year high. This is likely thanks to an increase in VMT in urban communities — cities are bursting at the seams, and as a result there are more people driving. But it represents a fundamental shift in American life. Up until 2015, there were more rural deaths than urban ones. That has now flipped.
Unsurprisingly, SUVs are continuing to wreak havoc on the roads. America’s favorite motor-vehicle type is also the most deadly. The number of people killed while driving or riding in SUVs rose 3 percent in 2017, the only population to register an increase. Sales of SUVs and crossovers in the US have more than doubled since 2010 and rose 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively, last year — even though overall industry sales declined 2 percent in 2017. SUVs and light trucks now make up over 60 percent of the cars bought by Americans each year.
But while it’s undeniably dangerous to be inside an SUV, it’s exponentially more deadly to be outside of one. The number of pedestrians killed in crashes involving SUVs has skyrocketed by 81 percent in the last decade, according to a report released earlier this year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
This is mostly because of the way SUVs are designed: larger bodies and higher carriage mean pedestrians are more likely to suffer deadly blows to the torso. And higher clearance means victims are more likely to get trapped underneath a speeding SUV instead of pushed onto the hood or off to the side. Speed is also a factor, because SUVs have more horsepower than a typical sedan. A recent investigation by USA Today and the Detroit Free Press found that the growing popularity of SUVs account for the alarming rise in pedestrian deaths.
Automakers mostly talk about safety and reducing motor vehicle deaths in the context of new technology, like advanced driver assist systems (think Tesla’s Autopilot) and fully driverless cars. It’s become a cliche for car companies and AV startups to cite the 37,000-plus figure at public events or in their press releases as a way to tout their so-called life-saving technology. But rarely do they acknowledge the undeniable truth: the best way to prevent these deaths is to design cities and residential communities to better encourage more walking and biking, and less driving. Fewer cars, not more, will help curb this carnage.