The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s early estimate of first-quarter traffic fatalities will be the highest since 2002.
An estimated 9,560 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the first quarter of 2022, according to NHTSA’s estimate released Thursday. That number represents an increase of about 7% compared with the same quarter last year, and is the highest number of first-quarter fatalities in 20 years.
“The overall numbers are still moving in the wrong direction. Now is the time for all states to double down on traffic safety. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, there are more resources than ever for research, interventions and effective messaging and programs that can reverse the deadly trend and save lives,” said Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s administrator, who earlier this week announced he was leaving to take the director’s job at the California Air Resource Board in September.
Where are the deaths happening?
The news is not uniformly bad: 19 states and Puerto Rico saw traffic deaths decline during this period. Rhode Island saw the greatest reduction in fatalities year-over-year, with a 50% drop compared to 2021. Other states with large declines include Arizona (-31.4%), Montana (-32.7%), North Dakota (-41.7%) South Dakota (-25%) and Wyoming (-25%).
The largest increases in traffic deaths took place in Delaware (+163%), Hawaii (+58.3%), Iowa (+43.8%), Maine (+39.1%), Maryland (+49.1%), Massachusetts (+33.8%), Nebraska (+55.6%), North Carolina (+51.2%), Vermont (+66.7%), Virginia (+71.8%) and Washington D.C. (+62.5%).
For broader tracking purposes, NHTSA divides the United States into 10 regions. Traffic fatalities rose by 23% in Region 1 (New England) and by 18% in Region 2 (New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey). Deaths were up by 52% in Region 3 (Maryland to North Carolina, plus Kentucky and West Virginia), but remained level in Region 4 (Southeast).
Region 5 (Upper Midwest) saw a 7% rise, while Region 6 (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi) saw only a 2% rise. Region 7 (lower Midwest) deaths were up by 7%. The plains states of Region 8 saw no increase, while Region 9 (California, Hawaii and Arizona) experienced an 11% reduction in fatal accidents. Finally, Region 10 (Pacific Northwest) saw a 9% increase in fatalities.
The raw data, including state-by-state numbers and NHTSA’s report, can be reviewed here.
Why is this happening?
NHTSA’s report does not break down traffic fatalities by root cause of the accident, but the usual factors of speeding, as well as impaired or distracted driving are in the mix. In addition to education campaigns, NHTSA regional offices are working closely with States to assist them in directing NHTSA formula grant funds to address risky driving behaviors such as speeding and driving while impaired, protecting vulnerable road users, and reaching over-represented and underserved populations using a broad array of programs and countermeasures.
Traffic death disparities by sex are diminishing
While traffic deaths overall are up since the start of the pandemic, disparities in fatality rates between men and women have been falling significantly. Historically, women are much more likely than men to be killed or injured in similar traffic collisions.
The estimated difference in fatality risk estimates for female versus male front row occupants is 6.3% for model year 2010-2020 vehicles, which is significantly reduced compared to 18.3% for model year 1960-2009 vehicles. The estimated difference is further reduced to 2.9% for the newest vehicles produced from 2015-2020.
According to a new report updating a 2013 NHTSA study examining fatality risk by sex, finding that the estimated difference in fatality risk is significantly reduced in newer vehicles, starting as early as model year 2000. The newer the vehicle, the smaller the disparity. The overall gap drops from 18% to 6.3% for 2010-2020 vehicles and to 2.9% for 2015-20 vehicles. The improvement is largely based on strengthened Federal safety standards for vehicles during the period.
“Advancing equity, including across our transportation system, is one of the Biden-Harris administration’s top priorities,” Cliff said. “While NHTSA’s new report shows significant declines in differences in crash outcomes between women and men, there is more work required to eliminate any disparities that remain.”
What makes the difference?
NHTSA attributes the decline in disparities to improved use of seat belts and increased numbers of vehicles with airbags. The agency conducted educational campaigns to improve seat belt use in the period studied.
The study found fewer than a third of occupants wore seat belts in the crashes included in the study involving model year 1960-2009 vehicles. For later year vehicles — model years 2010-2020 — almost 83% of occupants wore seat belts. When passengers and drivers use the most advanced seat belts, also found in newer vehicles, the estimated fatality risk for women relative to men drops to 6.1 percent.
Newer generations of cars equipped with dual airbags also help to reduce the estimated fatality risk for women compared to men. The relative female fatality risk for the latest model year vehicles (2015-2020) was higher for right-front passengers (5.3%) than drivers (0.5%).
The estimated fatality risk for females relative to males is generally higher for younger occupants than older occupants when considering different occupant protection types. For both drivers and right-front passengers, the estimated relative fatality risk for females is generally highest for 16- to 24-year-olds and decreases steadily until reaching its low for 65- to 96-year-olds.
Improved crash test dummies and computer modeling
One factor in reducing additional risk for women has been the development of new “biofidelic” crash test dummies, which can more closely resemble a variety of body types. Another factor is the development of sophisticated computer modeling that can evaluate the effects of different types of crashes on a large range of human body types and size.
The original crash test dummies, developed by Sierra Engineering Co. for the United States Air Force in 1949, assumed a 95th percentile adult male body. General Motors advanced the science of crash test dummy construction beginning in the 1970s, and the GM Hybrid III dummy became the industry standard in 1997. Today’s Hybrid III dummies can represent people from a 95th percentile man to a 5th percentile woman, and children of various ages.
Additionally, researchers are still looking into the degree to which sex disparities in injuries exist in similar crashes. Through the evaluation of new safety standards, the industry is working to eliminate all remaining disparities.