The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More Americans have died in car crashes since 2000 than in both World Wars

Emergency personnel work at the scene of fatal crash along Interstate 465 in Indianapolis on July 14.
Emergency personnel work at the scene of fatal crash along Interstate 465 in Indianapolis on July 14. (Rita L. Reith/Indianapolis Fire Department/AP)
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Since January 2000, more Americans have died in car crashes than did in both World Wars, and the overwhelming majority of the wrecks were caused by speeding, drunk or distracted drivers, according to government data.

“Where’s the social outrage? There should be social outrage,” said Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

By contrast, data shows that the opioid epidemic killed nearly 100,000 people between 2006 and 2012. During the same time frame, speeding, drunk and distracted driving caused 190,455 deaths.

In automotive circles, it’s common to hear that 94 percent of car crashes are caused by human error, a fact provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and often used as a preamble when people discuss the coming era of driverless vehicles.

And when the NTSB put out its “Most Wanted List” of transportation safety improvements this year, three of the 10 concerned distracted, speeding and drunken driving.

Fatal crashes or injuries that fall into those categories are, simply put, driver stupidity. The driver has taken an act — glancing at a cellphone, rushing to get somewhere or down the roadway for thrills, or drinking too much — that causes a crash with fatal consequences.

Taken collectively, the numbers since January 2000 are stark.

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More than 624,000 people died in car crashes, easily eclipsing the 535,000 American military personnel who died in World War I and World War II. More than 30 million people were injured in those crashes.

In almost 213,000 of those fatal crashes through 2017, the most recent year available, the drivers were above the legal limit for drinking and driving — a blood-alcohol content of .08 percent. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that a decline in drunken driving crashes slowed in the mid-1990s.

More than 197,000 people died as the result of speeding since 2000. And close to 78,000 people have died in crashes caused by distracted driving since 2000, according to a study by the American Public Health Association and NHTSA data. According to NHTSA, during daylight hours, 481,000 drivers are using their cellphones.

“Unfortunately, our public option research has repeatedly shown that people still believe it will happen to someone else, but not to them,” said Maureen Vogel of the National Safety Council.

Although seat belts first were mandated in 1968, and nearly 89 percent of people involved in fatal crashes were using them, more than 220,000 of them killed since 2000 were not.

And cellphone use while driving caused 800 deaths in 2017. Most of those using them are talking rather than texting or dealing with emails, according to a pair of IIHS reports this year.

“While most recognize the dangers created by taking your eyes off the road, they engage in distracting behaviors anyway, creating a ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ culture on the roadway,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy.

NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg is more blunt about distraction.

“Multi-tasking does two things. It makes you stupid, one, and it makes you dangerous,” he said.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety determined that those who talk on a cellphone while driving are four times more likely to crash, and those who text and drive are up to eight times more likely to crash. The number of drivers who say they talk on their cellphones regularly or fairly often while driving has jumped 46 percent since 2013, according to the foundation.

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And nodding off has caused more than 10,000 deaths since asleep-at-thewheel statistics were broken into a separate category in 2005.

“People walk around perpetually sleep-deprived, and they don’t recognize it,” NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil said.

In 2014, the AAA Foundation did a comprehensive study that concluded that about 21 percent of crashes involved a drowsy driver. And 29 percent of drivers said that they drove at some point during the past month when they had trouble keeping their eyes open.

The AAA Foundation determined that drivers who had less than four hours of sleep had 11.5 times the crash risk.

Just increasing the speed limit has resulted in nearly 37,000 deat hs over the past 25 years, according to a recent report by the IIHS. Since the 1974 gas crisis, when the federal government imposed a 55 mph speed limit, speeds have crept up, with 41 states allowing limits of 70 mph or higher, six states permitting 80 mph, and drivers in Texas can go 85 mph on some roads.

“Driving 70 instead of 65 saves a driver, at best, 6.5 minutes on a 100-mile trip,” said Charles Farmer, the institute’s vice president for research. He concluded that for each 5 mph increase in the posted speed limit, the fatality rate rose by 8 percent.

Farmer said in one year alone — 2017 — more than 1,900 people killed in crashes would still be alive if speed limits had not been increased.

“The difference is that people don’t see it as a risk,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said. “I drive 60 miles to work every day on I-95, and I’m doing the speed limit. People are doing 75, 80 and 85 [mph] and are not thinking about it.”

Lansberg quotes Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who said “One death is a tragedy, thousands [of deaths] are a statistic.”

“But everyone of us knows somebody, or has been affected themselves by someone, who was lost on the highways, a family member, a friend or a co-worker,” he said.

Heidi King, deputy administrator of NHTSA, told a Senate committee this year: “For you and for me, that is friends, that is neighbors, those are colleagues, those are constituents that we care a great deal about.”

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