​Why Are So Many People Dying on Our Roads?

Pacific Highway Roadside Memorial for an Undated Road Death
A memorial cross marks the spot on the road where a person died in an undated car accident.

Ian Waldie / Getty Images

The total number of people killed in or by cars keeps going up. While the number of people killed in cars continues to drop, the number of people killed by cars continues to increase.

The latest statistics on car crashes have been issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and there's a lot of disturbing information in there. In-car fatality decrease is because the designers, manufacturers, and regulators have done a terrific job with airbags, crush zones, electronic stability, and other features to protect people inside cars.

car crash statistics
Fewer people in cars are getting killed, but not so for those outside of cars. NHTSA.gov

Outside the automobile, it's another story. The number of pedestrians and cyclists killed continues to increase as a proportion of the total number of people killed. One reason is the increasing proportion of vehicles that are SUVs and pickup trucks, which are particularly deadly to pedestrians and cyclists.

SUVs vs. Cars

We have noted before on Treehugger that SUVs and pickup trucks are dangerous by design for pedestrians. Cars are mostly designed for international markets and meet tough European standards for reducing pedestrian injuries. Those standards are much weaker in the U.S. and SUVs and pickups, being "utility" vehicles, are not required to meet them. So, you can have 56 percent of the vehicles sold with fronts that are like a solid wall of steel.

chart showing pedestrian deaths by automobile type
SUVs and pickups kill at twice the rate as cars. NewScientist.com

Just focus on driving, please

While car manufacturers are doing a better job of protecting the people inside, how they are designed may explain why they are involved in more crashes. A study by the AAA found that infotainment systems are becoming a serious distraction for drivers. Distracted driving is a growing issue.

Tesla interior showing a large information panel in the center of the dash.
No distractions here!. Tesla.com
Today’s new features make placing a phone call or changing the radio more complicated by requiring drivers to maneuver through complex menu systems using touch screens or voice commands rather than use of simple knobs or buttons. Many of the latest systems also now allow drivers to perform tasks unrelated to driving like surfing the web, checking social media or sending a text message — all things drivers have no business doing behind the wheel.

Other things that have changed were listed on twitter by Eric Paul Dennis PE, a transportation system analyst for the Center for Automotive Research:

  1. Exposure: We see the fatality per VMT increasing, but this doesn't measure miles-traveled of bikers and peds. [There are a lot more of them on the road, and a lot more getting hit.]
  2. Risk adaption: Since we've gotten used to ABS and ESC [electronic stability], are we driving faster, following closer, taking corners sharper?
  3. Blind spots: With new crush-resist standards, new car pillars are huge. You can't see out. You can easily lose a pedestrian in an A-pillar.
  4. General loss of awareness: New cars have minimal feedback about the environment. They're sensory-deprivation chambers on wheels.
  5. Size and power: The average light vehicle is now bigger and faster than ever. Do you expect people to drive slower?

Driver Age Plays a Part

Then there's the statistic that got me started on this post: One of the most dramatic increases is the almost 20 percent increase in the number of deaths among drivers over 65 years old.

chart showing age related death statistics
More older drivers are getting killed — because there are lots more of them. NHTSA.gov

It’s actually not as bad as it looks, because the number of drivers over 65 years old increased by 33 percent. But it's still worrisome. It would be useful to break it down further and learn what's happening to 75-year-old (and older) drivers. As baby boomers age, the statistics are probably going to get a lot worse.

Bad Personal Choices

But, by far the most shocking statistic is how many deaths are directly related to our personal choices. Twenty-eight percent of deaths are related to drunk driving. Twenty-seven percent are attributed to speeding, and an incredible 28 percent simply from not wearing seat belts.

Close to 80 percent of fatalities are a direct result of stupidity. That’s why laws don’t really work. All three of these actions are illegal, and they still happen.

death from alcohol, speeding, and not wear seat belts
Look closely at the death-by-stupidity numbers: seat belts, speeding and drinking. NHTSA.gov

But how do you fix stupid? You design it to be stupid-proof. Road diets that make it hard to speed, connected cars that don't go over the speed limit, cellphones that don’t work when the vehicle is moving, interconnected seat belts, and breathalyzers connected to the ignition. But that’s a hard sell for a sexy fast-car industry that peddles style and performance. In fact, I couldn't stop thinking about this, so I wrote another post about how to fix stupid.