The statistics should be reassuring to jurisdictions that have in recent years embraced new traffic safety programs targeted at making roads safer and lowering traffic deaths, which have been steadily increasing since 2014.
There also were fewer fatalities resulting from speeding and alcohol-impaired drivers. Additionally, there was a 10 percent reduction in the number of children killed in crashes.
“After worrying spikes of fatalities from 2013 to 2016, we are headed in the right direction,” acting NHTSA administrator James C. Owens said at a news conference.
But while overall traffic fatalities were down, more pedestrians and bicyclists were killed on U.S. roads last year, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all traffic deaths.
According to NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System data, 6,283 pedestrians and 857 people on bikes or similar nonmotorized vehicles were killed in 2018, increases of 3.4 percent and 6.3 percent, respectively. Federal officials said the rises were concentrated in urban areas.
The share of pedestrians killed in traffic crashes grew by 5 percentage points in a decade, federal data shows. In 2008, 4,414 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes and accounted for about 12 percent of all traffic deaths. A decade later, the number rose to 6,283 pedestrians and 17 percent of all fatalities.
The increase in pedestrian and bicyclist deaths is troubling, traffic safety advocates and experts say, because more people are biking and walking to work in metropolitan areas. Cities throughout the United States, including Washington and New York, are embracing lower speed limits as one way of reversing the trend. Some are considering slow-driving zones in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic, and many have embraced “Vision Zero,” a program aimed at eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries.
Some advocates say the numbers though alarming and disappointing, aren’t surprising.
“Failure to adequately address street design, speed limits, and the other known contributing factors will only result in the deaths of people who walk and bike,” said Heidi Simon, with the nonprofit America Walks.
“Certainly our roadways are not properly designed to accommodate growing numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which earlier this year predicted that 2018 would see a historical surge in pedestrian deaths. A solution, he said, would entail a combination of initiatives, from new road engineering to educational approaches.
“Enforcement of traffic laws must also be given greater priority,” Adkins said.
Federal transportation officials say they are working with states to identify resources and programs to address pedestrian and bicyclist safety. According to NHTSA data, about 76 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred after dark. About 74 percent of the time, the pedestrian was crossing in the middle of a road, and nearly 40 percent of the time, the pedestrian had been drinking alcohol.
“Those are two behaviors that are very risky,” Owens said. “That doesn’t change the fact that our drivers need to drive in a way that is not distracted. … But everybody has an obligation to share the road, and we have to make sure that everybody looks out for safety.”
Federal officials say the numbers show that Americans are making safer choices on the road and that safety programs and enforcement works. They also attribute the overall decline in fatalities to the technology in newer vehicles that prevents or reduces the severity of crashes.
“Unfortunately our fleet today is the oldest in history,” Owens said, noting that the average car on U.S. streets is nearly 12 years old. “If we can help more people afford new vehicles, we will expect to see significant safety improvements”
Among some highlights from the 2018 data: The number of children, newborn to 14, who were killed dropped by 10 percent; speed-related fatalities were down nearly 6 percent; and alcohol-impaired fatalities declined 3.6 percent. Motorcyclist fatalities were down 4.7 percent.
Although vehicle miles traveled increased slightly last year, the fatality rates per 100 million vehicle miles traveled decreased by 3.4 percent, the lowest in five years, Owens said.