The Good and Bad News About U.S. Traffic Deaths

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Adminsitration (NHTSA) has released the detailed statistics on the death toll from motor vehicle operation in the U.S. in 2012. Though fatalities continue to sit at low levels not seen since the 1950s, the agency noted a rise in traffic deaths of 3 percent and an increase in drunk driving fatalities in 2012 compared to 2011. On the bright side, fewer deaths resulted from distracted driving accidents.

The Troubling Bad News 

Considering the advances in automobile safety technology, the increase in fatalities to 33,561 deaths in 2012 is troubling, while the number of injuries from accidents rose by an alarming 145,000. According to the NHTSA, pedestrian deaths increased 6.4 percent from 2011 to 2012, with a majority taking place at night in urban areas away from intersections.

The pedestrian deaths often involved alcohol impairment on the part of the driver, which was a trend the NHTSA reported in its overall stats. Deaths by drunk driving accidents went up 4.6 percent in 2012, claiming 10,322 lives, the equivalent of almost one-third of all fatalities by motor vehicle last year. New Jersey and Colorado had the biggest drop in drunk driving deaths in 2012, down 30 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Mississippi had the biggest drop in overall auto deaths with 48 fewer on the year.

Safety Equipment Weighed Heavily 

The jump in traffic fatalities in 2012 can be traced to safety decisions by the consumer. The NHTSA data shows the biggest increase in fatalities came among motorcyclists early in the year. Motorcyclists increased 7.1 percent in 2012, the third consecutive year the number rose.

States that do not require motorcycle riders to wear helmets had 10 times more fatalities than those with a universal helmet law, the NHTSA data showed. Since 2003, the proportion of deaths by motorcycle has jumped from 9 percent to 15 percent of the total traffic deaths in 2012. The stats also showed two-thirds of deaths by accidents at night occurred when the person was not wearing a seat belt.

The Bright Spots in the Report 

If there were any bright spots amidst the news, it came from the number of deaths occurring from distracted driving, which the NHTSA has recently begun considering a stat. Fatalities from distracted driver crashes stood at 3,328 in 2012, just below the total of 3,360 in 2011. Meanwhile, the number of injuries caused by distracted motorists jumped from 387,000 to 421,000.

Though the NHTSA reports the 2012 crash levels were on par with 1950 levels, automakers are trying to bring more advanced safety technology to market. Many SUVs and cars already employ blind spot monitors as well as automatic braking overrride and danger sensors that alert drivers of trouble ahead.

With more than 30,000 annual deaths occurring from motor vehicle use, there is clearly a great deal of work to be done and a great deal of potential for the automaker bringing the most complete safety package to market in the coming years. So far in 2013, the preliminary reports by the NHTSA show fewer traffic deaths than in 2012.

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