The number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. dropped slightly in 2017, reversing an upward trend that had been in place the two previous years, federal transportation authorities said.
Despite the slight decline, 2017 was nevertheless the second deadliest year for traffic fatalities in the U.S. during the last decade. Distracted, smartphone-using drivers and motorists on prescription opioids and other drugs account for some of the highway carnage, which hit historic highs in recent years, but the factors behind fatal traffic crashes are always harder to pinpoint than to estimate.
But one thing is certain: the recent decline in traffic fatalities may be a sign of better days ahead for highway safety.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the downward trend in traffic fatalities remained in place for the first half of 2018, indicating that the epidemic of bad driving has ebbed, or at least leveled off.
NHTSA said in an Oct. 3 announcement that 37,133 people died in traffic accidents in 2017 – a decline of “nearly two percent” (1.8 percent to be exact) from 2016, but the agency doesn’t give the exact number of traffic fatalities that occurred in 2016 beyond its original total of 37,461. Based on the original total, the decline in traffic fatalities in 2017 would be less than one percent.
NHTSA revises the traffic fatality numbers it collects from the Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) about a year after it releases its annual report file. A NHTSA official said that “The additional time provides the opportunity for submission of important variable data requiring outside sources, such as death certificate data. In addition, there may be cases added to the file or slight revisions to existing cases.”
Of course, a decline of any magnitude is a move in the right direction, and even a statistically insignificant decline could indicate a turning point.
NHTSA noted some other changes in 2017 traffic fatalities, including:
- Pedestrian fatalities declined about 2 percent, the first decline since 2013;
- For the second year in a row, more fatalities occurred in urban areas than rural areas;
- Combination trucks involved in fatal crashes increased 5.8 percent;
- Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased by 1.2 percent from 2016 to 2017; and
- The fatality rate per 100 million VMT decreased by 2.5 percent, from 1.19 in 2016 to 1.16 in 2017.
“Dangerous actions such as speeding, distracted driving, and driving under the influence are still putting many Americans, their families and those they share the road with at risk,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi R. King. “Additionally, we must address the emerging trend of drug-impaired driving to ensure we are reducing traffic fatalities and keeping our roadways safe for the traveling public.”