For the first time since 2020, the number of deaths on U.S. roads fell, dropping 4.9% during the second quarter, according to early estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
While it’s good news, marking the first decline since the third quarter of 2020, the Q2 drop wasn’t enough to offset a 7.3% jump during the first three months of the year, which totaled 9,560 estimated deaths — the highest Q1 number since 2022.
Overall, an estimated 20,175 people died in the first half of this year, which is up from the 20,070 projected during the same period last year — 0.5% increase, NHTSA noted. The numbers run contrary to an August estimate from the National Safety Council, which showed first half deaths fell 1 percent.
“Traffic deaths appear to be declining for the first time since 2020, but they are still at high levels that call for urgent and sustained action. These deaths are preventable, not inevitable, and we should act accordingly,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
“Safety is our guiding mission at the Department of Transportation, and we will redouble our efforts to reduce the tragic number of deaths on our nation’s roads.”
Inside the numbers
Americans drove more — 43.2 billion miles more — in the first half this year, a 2.8% increase compared with the first six months of 2021.
Despite people driving more, the country’s fatality rate dropped to 1.27 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, NHTSA reported, which is a slight decrease from 1.3 deaths last year during the same timeframe.
The total number of estimated traffic deaths topped 42,000 in 2021, the highest number since 2005, and a more than 10% increase compared with 2020. The country saw 38,842 deaths in 2020, according to NHTSA.
Traffic deaths declined for several years as vehicle engineering offered more protection to occupants during crashes, while safety-oriented technology improved, making drivers better, including taking over for them during some emergency events.
That changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. With fewer people on the roads due to lockdown measures in several states, many drivers saw at clearer roads as an invitation to recklessly. As a result. the death rates per vehicle miles traveled as well as the overall numbers of fatalities rose.
“Although it is heartening to see a projected decline in roadway deaths in recent months, the number of people dying on roads in this country remains a crisis,” said Ann Carlson, NHTSA’s Acting Administrator, in a statement.
Efforts to change
With the numbers on the rise, despite vehicles being safer than ever, the Transportation Department undertook several measures aimed at turning the tide of rising deaths in January, introducing the National Roadway Safety Strategy.
The program focuses on five areas: safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds and post-crash care. The DOT created list of action items to help meet the goals of the program, including:
- In May, the Federal Highway Administration issued Complete Streets guidance and is encouraging States to develop complete streets using the formula funding delivered through the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
- In March, NHTSA issued a request for comment to proposed significant upgrades to the New Car Assessment Program, in part by proposing to add four more advanced driver assistance system technologies to those NHTSA already recommends. These new technologies would include blind spot detection, blind spot intervention, lane keeping assistance and pedestrian automatic emergency braking. The notice also describes the roadmap of the Agency’s plans to update NCAP in phases over the next 10 years, to potentially incorporate consideration of the vehicle’s safety features for people walking or biking around the car.
- In June, NHTSA issued a final rulemaking on rear impact guards for trailers and semitrailers.
To help with those, it received more than $1 billion in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, with the ultimate goal being zero roadway fatalities.
“We must not become complacent,” said Mark Chung, executive vice president of roadway practice at NSC.
“Traffic violence plagues our communities, and thousands of lives lost each month is simply unacceptable. A one percent decrease only symbolizes a glimmer of hope and serves as confirmation that now is the time to combine proven countermeasures with innovative solutions so we can save lives. The work is far from over.”