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After Decade-Long Decline, Highway Deaths Suddenly Surge

Motorists take to the road again after long recession.

by on Dec.21, 2012

Highway fatalities have suddenly reversed a near decade-long decline. The question is why?

After a decade of decline, U.S. highway fatalities appear to be on the upswing again, according to new government data, with the death total climbing faster than at any time since 1975.

The 7.1% jump during the first nine months of the year has safety experts scrambling for an explanation, though at least some of the blame may go to the economy, more Americans driving longer distances as their personal financial situation has improved, post-recession.

The Last Word!

“There is a relationship between the economy, gas prices, driving and fatalities,” noted Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “However, the increase can’t be explained solely because of an improving economy and more discretionary driving.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an estimated 25,580 Americans were killed in motor vehicle crashes during the first nine months of 2012.  That was approximately 1,700 more than died during the same period the year before.

If anything, traffic fatalities fell to their lowest level in more than six decades during 2011, according to a study released by federal regulators earlier this month.  The death toll was a still-significant 32,367, but that was down from 43,510 as recently as 2005 when a variety of factors began a near decade-long dive in highway fatalities.

Last year’s tally was not only the lowest overall total since the late 1940s but saw fatalities fall to a record low based on deaths per 100 million miles driven.

According to NHTSA, motorists did log more miles during the first three quarters of 2012, but the 14.2 billion mile, or 0.6%, increase doesn’t come close to accommodating the overall rise in the death toll. On a miles-driven basis, fatalities rose to 1.16 per 100 million miles compared to 1.09 for the same 9-month period last year, and 1.10 per 100 million miles for all of 2011.

According to GHSA’s Adkins, “Other factors may be at play. For example, 2012 had one of the warmest winters on record. That may have resulted in a longer motorcycle riding season and more pedestrian activity and hence, more fatalities.”

Safety officials have been lamenting the steady increase in the number of states, such as Michigan, that have recently abandoned helmet laws.  While fatalities among those in passenger vehicles has been dropping sharply in recent years, motorcycle deaths have risen markedly. Also up are pedestrian deaths, the government reporting a 4% rise for 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The increase in traffic during the winter may also have had a disproportionate impact on the overall fatality rate. Significantly, roadway deaths rose 13% during the first quarter of 2012 while the increase was a more modest 4.9% during the warm third quarter.

NHTSA officials have been warning that what Department of Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood has called an “epidemic” of distracted driving” could reverse recent downward trends. But the agency has not weighed in on whether it is linking such problems as texting while driving with this year’s rise in highway fatalities.

Yet to be seen is whether increased freeway speed limits are implicated.  But despite some concerns as states continue to relax those limits – Texas opening the nation’s fastest roadway, at 85 mph, this autumn.  However, previous years showed little direct linkage, the death toll dropping even as most states had approved steadily higher speeds.

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6 Responses to “After Decade-Long Decline, Highway Deaths Suddenly Surge”

  1. Jorge M. says:

    If Michigan is any indication of the driving patterns of other states, it is no surprise to me that the death rate has increased. I travel a fair amount and I have never in my life seen such aggression and inattentive driving as I experience almost weekly when I’m in the metro Detroit area.

    It’s pretty obvious that the reduction in police units in Michigan has made it clear to motorists there that “anything goes” on the roadways. People routinely speed 15 mph over the limit no matter what the limit is, be it highway, secondary streets or even in school zones. They cut other motorists off numerous times per mile of travel. It’s like the majority of drivers have a death wish or are on illicit drugs. It’s like a combat zone IMO and I have driven in countries around the world so this is not a safe environment from my years of driving experience.

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      I have to agree, Jorge, that there is a definite level of aggression on the roads, though I am not sure it is limited to Michigan. And simply exceeding the speed limit isn’t necessarily the worst problem, as most people push the limit so the speed differential isn’t as great as it could be. The lack of common sense and the routine flouting of common sense and safety precautions, ie failing to signal, making right turns from left lanes, etc., well, that would support your thesis.

      Paul A. Eisenstein

  2. Jorge M. says:


    All of the insanity that you mentioned and more is typical of what I see when in the Metro Detroit area. I don’t know that it is unique to Metro Detroit but perhaps it’s worse there than any other places I travel be it LA, NYC or Europe.

    The fact that they flaunt it in Metro Detroit and have no issue with flying by other motorists on secondary roads at 60+ mph speeds says a lot about the mentality. If it were just a few motorist now and then it might be considered “normal” but when the majority of drivers drive in this manner, it’s troubling.

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:

      Jorge, I do suggest you wear a helmet and drop a tranquilizer, then, when you get to LA or Boston…

      Paul E.

  3. Jorge M. says:

    Right… I do not find the drivers in LA or NYC to be as bad as in Detroit. Perhaps those who drive uncivil should be removed from the roadways so that they are safe for responsible and respectful drivers? Denial or acceptance of the problem certain isn’t appropriate nor constructive to correcting the problem.

    • Paul A. Eisenstein says:


      I just drove back from my in-laws near Toronto and while I saw plenty of cops hunkered down in speed traps firing their laser and radar guns I saw none out enforcing the rules of the road that might truly improve safety, ie failure to use turn signals when changing lanes, failure to yield to passing traffic. Mile after mile I saw the center and left lanes completely full, often with a lead driver at or below the speed limit forcing anyone who wanted to pass to do a risky maneuver over to the far right lane.

      There is a major intersection right where I exit the freeway to go home where red light running is endemic. I have asked the local chief why he stations his men UNDER the intersection in an underpass where people routinely get nailed for 10 over, while no one ever gets ticketed for running the red lights above — despite frequent accidents. The answer: it’s too difficult. We have made it easy to enforce speed laws: if the cop says you were speeding it is almost impossible to beat the ticket. So, you put the resources where it is most effective, and that usually translates into maximum revenue production. The crazy behaviors that really lead to accidents are rarely enforced.

      Shift enforcement priorities and I think you might see some significant improvement in roadway behavior.

      Paul E.