The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released its 2018 statistics on fatal motor vehicle crashes, and the good news is, across the nation, the number of people killed in traffic crashes is down by 2.4 percent. That national trend tracks with Texas’ numbers, which saw traffic deaths also drop by 2.4 percent between 2017 and 2018 and alcohol-related traffic deaths drop by 2.8 percent.
On the surface, that’s great news, until you realize that what the report is saying is that it is still okay for 3,642 Texans to die because of how we move around our cities and state. In total, 36,560 people died in traffic-related accidents in the U.S. in 2018.
The report also reveals a few other revealing trends:
- The decrease in motor vehicle traffic crash deaths can be attributed to fewer driver and passenger deaths. There were decreases across all categories of vehicles—passenger cars, vans, SUVs, pickups, motorcycles—as well as alcohol-impaired drivers and speeding-related fatalities. This appears to suggest that we’re getting better at making cars safer for their occupants.
- This trend doesn’t hold true for the occupants of large trucks, which saw a 0.8 percent increase in fatalities, or 7 additional fatalities in 2018 over 2017.
- More troublingly, there were significant increase in the traffic-related deaths for both pedestirans and cyclists, which increased by 3.4 percent and 6.3 percent respectively. This suggests that while we are making cars safer for the people inside them, we’re not making streets safer for the people who share the public space with motor vehicles. In total, 259 more pedestrians and cyclists were killed in 2018 over 2017.
- The overall fatality rate did continue its 40-year downward trend, though, as I have noted before, this kind of statistical view can contribute to normalizing the problem. Even though around 8,000 fewer people in America die in motor vehicle-related fatalities than they did in the 1970s, there are still tens of thousands of people who die every year because of cars. Compare that to airplane travel, which saw only 556 deaths globally in 2018. Nevertheless, when there is an aircraft accident, politicians and regulators spring into action.
- The NHTSA also breaks out the fatalities by land use and finds that the number of fatalities in rural areas has decreased, while the number of fatalities in urban areas has increased. In fact, since 2015, urban motor vehicle fatalities have outpaced rural fatalities. This data seems to track with the split between driver and pedestrian/cyclist deaths. We have gotten better at making cars safer for drivers and on roads that aren’t shared by any other forms of mobility. But in cities, where cars meet pedestrians and cyclists, our streets are getting more dangerous.
I think that last data point offers the biggest takeaway from this report. The vast majority of our transportation infrastructure funding in the United States goes to roads and highways, and the majority of regulation around motor vehicle safety addresses making cars safer for drivers. But if we were to look at the challenge of mobility through a lens of overall traffic safety, there is a clear need to make streets safer for the people who share them with cars.
After all, the cars are the machines that do all the killing on our streets. I can’t confirm that claim with hard data—I tried to look up how many people were killed by pedestrians in 2018, but there doesn’t seem to be any research. That’s probably because if you accidentally bump into someone on the street, you say “excuse me,” and move on.