After decades of relatively constant decline, U.S. highway deaths rose by a worrying 9% during the first nine months of 2015, according to federal safety regulators.
The increase comes at a time when auto recalls are running at record levels and as Americans spend more time on the road due to a recovering economy and plunging fuel prices. If the upward trend continued during the final quarter it would mark only the second time highway deaths were up for a full year during the last decade. At the current rate, Americans are dying on the road at the rate of two loaded 747s crashing every week.
“For decades, U.S. DOT has been driving safety improvements on our roads, and those efforts have resulted in a steady decline in highway deaths,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement. “But the apparent increase in 2015 is a signal that we need to do more.”
While final figures won’t be available until later this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 26,000 American drivers, passengers, bicyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2015. A total of 23,976 were killed during the same period the year before, with the death toll at 32,675 for all of 2014.
That worked out to a fatality rate of 1.1 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled – a figure that more accurately accounts for the fact that Americans have been driving more as the economy recovers and gas prices plunge. In 2014, the fatality rate reached a historic low of just 1.05 per 100 million miles traveled. If the trend holds for all of 2015, it would come as the highest fatality rate since 2012, at 1.14 deaths per 100 million miles.
The uptick was not unexpected, NHTSA and various safety organizations having signaled the trend for months. In November, a federal report identified an 8% surge during the first half of the year, so the situation may be getting worse.
When that first-half report was release, NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind declared it, “a wake-up call.”
(Average new vehicle fuel economy improves in January. For more, Click Here.)
Automotive safety has become a headline issue for a variety of reasons in recent years. There have been a number of high-profile problems, such as the General Motors ignition switch scandal and the ongoing recall of vehicles using Takata airbags. Just yesterday, Honda confirmed it will add another 2.3 million vehicles to the Takata recall list.
But experts caution that these high-profile safety lapses are, at worst, a minor factor in the rising U.S. highway fatality rate. So far, just 10 deaths have been linked to the airbag issue, a bit more than 120 to the faulty GM ignition switches.
By comparison, nearly two fully loaded jumbo jets a week would have to fall from the sky to match last year’s fatality rate.
On the whole, air travel has become safer than ever, with only a handful of deaths over the past decade. Road travel has also seen significant improvements, fatalities dropping 40% since the 1970s peak. But NHTSA’s Rosekind recently told TheDetroitBureau.com that the agency’s goal is to get the figure down to zero.
(Click Here for more about the expanding Takata recall.)
Several automakers, including Nissan and Volvo, have set similar goals, and the industry, on the whole, has become more proactive on the subject. A new safety consortium pairing NHTSA and 18 major automakers was announced last month at the Detroit Auto Show. The goal is to push new technologies into production faster than might otherwise happen through the traditional regulatory process.
Another industry-government consortium, with 10 automotive participants, is expected to soon announce plans to make forward collision avoidance technology standard across the makers’ lines.
A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety last week found that forward collision warning systems were cutting the number of rear-end crashes reported to police by 23%. More advanced autonomous emergency braking systems delivered a 40% reduction.
(To see more about airbag control modules force recall of 5 million vehicles, Click Here.)
But such technologies will take decades to roll out across the vast U.S. fleet, proponents note, considering the average vehicle on the road is now 11 years old. That leaves safety proponents and regulators struggling to find ways to reverse last year’s unexpected upturn in fatalities.