Last week, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released new data covering traffic deaths in 2017. 37,133 people killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes, down 1.8 percent from 2016. That drop looks better when you adjust for Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). The fatality rate per 100 million VMT decreased by 2.5 percent in a year where more miles were driven than ever before.
However, there’s a disturbing trend below the national, aggregate numbers. City streets are busier and more dangerous than ever before—especially for people using the road on a bike, scooter, or crossing the street.
Traffic Death More Common in Cities, Reversing a Decades-Long Trend
According to NHTSA, “The number of urban fatalities was larger than the number of rural fatalities in 2016 and 2017. In 2015 and earlier, rural fatalities were larger than urban fatalities.” Since 1975, more people died on rural roads than city roads. In less populated areas, speeds are higher, and there is less traffic. But, in 2016 and continuing with 2017, traffic fatalities were more numerous in urban streets.
If more people are dying on urban streets with more traffic, slower speeds, and more mode-mixing, that suggests urban streets are increasingly mal-adapted for modern urban mobility services like bikeshare, scooters, and ride-hailing. Lower speeds should reduce fatality rate, but lots of other factors such as intersection design and streets with baked-in traffic conflicts cause accident rates to go up.
People Are Driving and Dying More Inside The City
It is intuitive yet incorrect to think increased non-car transportation options have reduced how much people drive. In fact, according to NHTSA’s new data, “Urban VMT increased by 13.1 percent since 2008” with fatalities going up as more people drove: “Urban fatalities increased by 17.4 percent since 2008.” Putting that into a volume-adjusted rate gives you an unhealthy trend: “Urban fatality rate per 100 million VMT increased by 3.7 percent since 2008.” So, more people drive in the city, fatal accidents are happening more, and those accidents are occurring more frequently.
People Are Driving and Dying Less In Rural Areas
Since 2008, VMT has decreased by 2.1 percent, and fatalities have dropped 18 percent. Deaths per 100 million VMT has was 16 percent lower in 2018 than in 2008. In contrast to each of those stats in urban areas, driving volume, driving death, and the rate of death from driving have gone down in rural areas.
Migration Patterns Show Cities Have a Large Challenge on Transportation Deaths
The NHTSA report indicates that the urban population has increased by 12.7 percent in the last ten years while rural areas lost 11.8 percent of their people. That leads to the hypothesis that more people lead to more driving, leads to more traffic fatalities. However, urban departments of transportation face a more complex challenge than that.
The NHTSA report shows that occupants of motor vehicles are safer now than ever before. “The proportion of people killed “inside the vehicle” (passenger car, light truck, large truck, bus, and other vehicle occupants) declined from a high of 80 percent in 1996 to 67 percent in 2017.” However, urban streets are much more likely than rural roads to have vulnerable commuters outside of motor vehicles. The data show that as more people move to the city and driving volume increases there, the commuters lacking seatbelts and roll cages are less safe. “ The proportion of people killed “outside the vehicle” (motorcyclists, pedestrians, pedalcyclists, and other nonoccupants) increased from a low of 20 percent in 1996 to a high of 33 percent in 2017.”
Here’s how NHTSA breaks out the growing danger of city streets for non-drivers:
- Pedestrian fatalities in urban areas increased by 46 percent since 2008; rural areas decreased by 6 percent.
- Pedalcyclist (this means cyclist) fatalities in urban areas increased by 13 percent since 2008; rural areas decreased by 15 percent.
- Motorcyclist fatalities in urban areas increased by 15 percent since 2008; rural areas decreased by 25 percent.
Before you think an Uber is safer than Capital Bikeshare, consider this: it’s still also more dangerous than ever before to be inside the car on city streets. “Passenger vehicle occupant fatalities in urban areas increased by 9 percent since 2008; rural areas decreased by 19 percent.”
Our Roads Are Dangerous. What Are We Doing to Change that?
The national totals hide the alarming trend that streets like ours in the DMV are getting more dangerous at double-digit annual rates. People are moving to urban areas from nearby rural zones, adding people and similar traffic volumes. Fatal accidents are going up in the city, but it’s worse than a one-to-one migration to urban zones. Clustering more and more vehicles on city streets with their greater diversity of transportation modes creates exponential growth in road danger.
The NHTSA report shows driving to be getting safer…for the occupants of the vehicle. That’s not much comfort for the urban commuters who use non-car commutes in higher number than rural residents. These data suggest city policymakers need to act quicker than they have been to accommodate increased car traffic and also more dramatically re-design urban streets so that motor vehicle traffic mixes safer with cyclists, scooter users, and commuters who walk to work.
These NHTSA data are limited to fatal accidents; that’s a limited and biased sample of all accidents that occur on streets. Combining these accidents with non-lethal collisions would give a more complete picture of the increased collisions on city streets. It’s not just that deaths are going up on city streets. It’s probably also true that non-lethal collisions are going up, and perhaps increasing much more. That would help guide government officials and community stakeholders to further tailor Vision Zero and Complete Streets efforts. More of this to come?