NHTSA preliminary data show traffic fatalities fell in 2019

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s early estimates of vehicular incidents from 2019 show a drop in car crash fatalities for the third consecutive year. In 2016, 37,806 died in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roads, dropping to 37,473 in 2017, 36,560 in 2018, and an estimated 36,120 last year. The decline included five major categories and was nationally widespread, with nine of 10 NHTSA regions posting reduced numbers.

The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) noted passenger deaths dropped by 4%, driver and pedal-cyclist deaths fell by 3%, pedestrian deaths were down by 2%, and motorcyclist deaths by 1%. Fatalities that involved at least one truck — a truck is defined as vehicles with a GVWR greater than 10,000 pounds, even a pickup — are expected to rise by 1%. The potential overall drop comes even as vehicle miles traveled (VMT) rose by 0.9%, improving the fatality rate per 100 million VMT to 1.10 deaths, which would be the second-lowest figure recorded since NHTSA began tracking such data, if the numbers hold.

The pedestrian figure appears to be in flux. In February, estimates from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) suggested pedestrian fatalities had risen to 6,590 in 2019, compared to 6,283 in 2018, which was the highest number since 1988. NHTSA’s early numbers show about 126 fewer pedestrians killed in 2019 compared to 2018. 

The final figures will be available later this year. Between now and then, the estimates might change when projections covering the beginning of this year are released.

NHTSA doesn’t attribute causes to the decline. Driver assistance safety systems haven’t proved a link to reduced fatalities, but John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, told Automotive News that features like automatic emergency braking can “dramatically improve vehicle and pedestrian safety,” and Alliance automakers want the FCC to set aside the 5.9 GHz spectrum to enable “expanded vehicle automation.”

In the meantime, NHTSA and GHSA are preparing for millions of cars to return to the roads as the nation opens up from the coronavirus lockdown. Across the country, police forces have dealt with much lower traffic but higher rates of excessive speeding and greater fatalities. A GHSA statement said there has been “more speeding on our roadways rather than the significant reduction in traffic crashes we would expect with the nation sheltering at home,” while the Minnesota Post reported, “Crashes down, fatalities up.”

To help remind drivers to be safe, NHTSA said it would “be ramping up our campaign efforts on raising public awareness over the next couple of weeks and months” to tell people, “When you get back on the road, now is the time to remember all the safe driving practices that you had.”

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