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A lot of people died on US roads in 2016, but distracted driving is down

A lot of people died on US roads in 2016, but distracted driving is down


37,461 people killed last year

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Car Crashes Into Pedestrians In Times Square
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A staggering 37,461 people were killed on US roads in 2016, an increase of 5.6 percent from the previous year, according to just-released statistics from the US National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. That’s less than the alarming 8.4 percent year-over-year increase we saw in 2015, but it’s still a pretty depressing statistic.

But before you go blaming smartphones, texting while driving, or more attention-stealing in-car technology, incidents of distracted driving were down 2.2 percent in 2016 from the previous year. Drowsy driving decreased, too. So what’s to blame for all the blood and carnage on our streets today?

what’s to blame for all the blood and carnage on our streets today?

Unsurprisingly, it’s the unholy trinity of drunk driving (up 1.7 percent), speeding (up 4 percent), and unbuckled occupants (up 4.9 percent) that’s mostly responsible. Deaths per vehicle type were up across the board, too. More people died in passenger cars, SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks than they did in 2015.

And those that share the road with cars — pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists — also died in greater numbers in 2016 than the previous year. Pedestrian deaths are at their highest number since 1990: 492 pedestrians were killed by cars in 2016, up 9 percent over the prior year. And bike deaths are also at a historic high: 840 bicyclists were killed by automobiles in 2016, the highest number since 1991.


With an improving economy and cheap gas, more people are out driving and walking with more disposable income for activities like weekend drinking. So while more deaths are bad, they are only one part of the story. An important number is the amount of traffic deaths per mile driven. If people are driving more miles, it's natural that traffic accidents (and then fatalities) would increase as well, as long as technology and behavior remain the same.

And, unsurprisingly, traffic deaths per vehicle mile rose as well. The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased by 2.6 percent from 1.15 percent in 2015 to 1.18 percent in 2016, according to NHTSA.

Cars are much safer these days than they have been in years. Total traffic fatalities are down significantly from 10 years ago, and the decline gets even more significant if you go back further. But just because cars are safer doesn’t make them any less deadly to vulnerable people who share the road with them. The spike in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities is incredibly alarming. And any government-backed “Vision Zero” or crash-mitigation plan that doesn’t recognize that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.