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A Primer on Roadway Safety Statistics

U. S. traffic deaths for 2008 reached "only" an estimated 37,313, the lowest number since 1961.

by on Apr.10, 2009

The seat belt remains the single most effective safety device ever invented.

If used, the seat belt remains the single most effective auto safety device ever invented.

The defining moment for safety statistics for me stands out in my memory. It was early one Sunday morning, summer of 1951, in a small town in Alabama. Harry and I had been driving all night, long before the advent of Interstates, in his worn ’46 Ford Club Coupe heading to Florida from Kentucky. Occasionally, when the heat needle threatened, we’d feed the radiator with water from a canteen, once refilled from a roadside creek. 

Just as we circled the courthouse square shortly after sun-up, I witnessed a deputy sheriff walk up to a large signboard on the courthouse lawn to change the number-increasing it by one-for the accumulated traffic deaths in the county for the year. The deputy probably had been up all night, too, cleaning up the “fatal.” Some next-of-kins would be digesting the devastating news. Eventually, the totals for that county might have been worked, voluntarily and haphazardly, into the annual reports of the private National Safety Council. 

Since 1975, there’s been a very disciplined, nationwide system for reporting traffic deaths called FARS, for Fatality Analysis Reporting System, run by the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency’s General Estimates System (GES) supplements FARS by sampling serious accident police reports for additional data on injuries and property damage. A uniform accident report form is used in most every jurisdiction and the resulting fatality data collected from the states by the Feds. In turn, NHTSA analysts crunch the numbers from more than 100 FARS and 90 GES data elements. 

From this system came the big announcement from NHTSA earlier this week: U. S. traffic deaths for 2008 reached “only” an estimated 37,313, the lowest number since 1961. In addition, the fatality rate was the lowest ever recorded, at 1.28 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. We’ll have to wait several months for more detailed and “final” numbers to be issued.  (more…)