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Highway Deaths Dip After Unexpected Jump in 2012

Fatalities near 60-year low.

by on Aug.29, 2013

Highway fatalities are again on the decline.

After an unexpected and worrisome jump in road deaths last year, preliminary federal figures indicate the numbers fell sharply during the first three months of 2013.

The government also lowered its road death count for all of 2012, though the adjusted numbers were still the worst in four years and marked the first time since 2005 that fatalities rose for a full year.  An increase in pedestrian and motorcycle deaths – particularly in states like Michigan where helmet laws have been dropped – contributed to last year’s unexpected surge.

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According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an estimated 7,200 people died in traffic accidents during the first quarter of 2013.  By comparison, 9,300 perished during the first three months of 2012, according to revised NHTSA numbers.  It’s the second quarter in a row that fatalities declined and a preliminary reversal of last year’s unexpected jump in the highway fatality rate.

The government original estimated 2012’s death toll had risen by 5.3% but has now revised the numbers downward slightly. Still, with an increase of 4.4%, it was the worst year for highway fatalities in four years, a U.S. total of 33,780.

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Experts have been debating the reasons for the increase. Beyond the helmet-related motorcycle issue, fingers have been pointed at the unexpectedly warm weather during the previous winter which led to an overall increase in driving, particularly in the Northeast and other, Snowbelt climes. Indeed, fatalities during the winter of 2013 were up 12.3% compared to the prior year.

Significantly, this year’s colder winter weather appears to have kept more motorists indoors, which may have contributed to the decline in fatalities.

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In terms of deaths per 100 million miles traveled, the first quarter 2013 estimate came in at 1.04. That was the lowest since the first three months of 2011, when the figure dipped to 0.98.

Highway fatalities dipped to a 60-year low in 2011. Between 2005 and 2011 they plunged 26%, from  43,510 to just 32,367. To put those figures into perspective, the U.S. lost a total 47,355 military personnel to combat wounds during the entire Vietnam War.

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Transportation analysts credit a variety of factors for the general decline in highway fatalities in recent years.  For one thing, the latest statistics from the Federal Highway Administration show Americans are driving less – an average 820 miles a month as of mid-2012, down from a peak of 900 miles a month in mid-2004.

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Today’s cars are considerably safer due to expanded use of both passive safety technologies, such as crash cells and side-impact airbags, as well as active safety systems designed to prevent a crash in the first place. Seatbelt usage is also at a record high.

New laws aimed at distracted driving issues like texting have also gotten some credit, as has increased enforcement of impaired driving laws. Heading into the annual Labor Day holiday weekend, NHTSA and the new Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced a new “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” national drunk driving crackdown.

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