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On Friday, February 5, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released new data [PDF] showing that traffic deaths are up. Up quite a bit.

During the first nine months of 2015, 26,000 Americans were killed in traffic collisions—a 9.3 percent increase over the same period in 2014. According to Autoblog, that would work out to the highest one-year percentage increase in traffic deaths since the 1940s if the trend continued through the end of 2015.

The most obvious reason is that cheap gas is prompting people to drive more. Indeed, during the first three quarters of 2015, drivers logged 80 billion more miles than the same period the previous year—a 3.5 percent increase.

(Courtesy Kentucky State Police / Twitter)
(Courtesy Kentucky State Police / Twitter)

That means the increase in driving doesn’t account for all the increase in fatalities. One theory, courtesy of David Levinson at the University of Minnesota, is that when gas prices fall, collisions rise faster than mileage because people who don’t ordinarily drive much, like teenagers, start driving more.

In its messages, NHTSA keeps hammering “behavioral” issues, like drunk driving and failing to wear seatbelts—which certainly are big contributors to traffic fatalities. But when you get down to it, driving itself is the source of risk, and NHTSA won’t address the systemic factors that compel Americans to drive instead of taking transit, walking, or biking.

You’ll never see NHTSA mention the disaster that is low-density, single-use zoning, which lengthens the distances people have to travel in cars. Or the way state DOTs keep building bigger highways even though they don’t maintain the roads they already have.

In a statement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the new data “is a signal that we need to do more,” but he did not specify what, exactly, we need to do more of.

[This article was cross-posted from StreetsBlog. Top image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
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Angie Schmitt

Angie Schmitt

Reporter at StreetsBlog
Angie Schmitt is a newspaper reporter-turned planner/advocate who manages the Streetsblog Network from glamorous Cleveland, Ohio. She also writes about urban issues particular to the industrial Midwest at Rustwire.com.
Angie Schmitt

10 COMMENTS

  1. Once again, another post about those evil automobiles on this site. It’s getting old. Post after post after post…Try as you might, not everyone is going to bike or take the bus. Fact of the matter is that automobiles today are safer than they’ve ever been, and have better fuel economy.

  2. The point of the article is not to frame the automobile as evil, or say it’s more unsafe from an engineering standpoint than it was in the past.

    The broader message is that our streets are largely designed for a lifestyle centered around the car, leaving citizens with one choice; drive a car, or move somewhere else.

    “NHTSA won’t address the systemic factors that compel Americans to drive instead of taking transit, walking, or biking”

  3. Bicycle, mass transit, and pedestrian advocacy are pillars of this website. Always have been, since day one. I don’t think the car lacks a voice in the debate. Thank you, Brandon, for providing Louisville a much needed forum to discuss alternative transportation. This website has done tremendous work providing Louisvillians national and international context for urban issues we face at home. BS isn’t simply about embracing what Louisville was yesterday and is today, but what it can be tomorrow if we continue to embrace progressive ideas and challenging dialogue.

  4. See BadwaterJournal.com article on the DOT Smart Cities Challenge. Louisville envisions a future of connected, autonomous cars and continued low levels of transit support. This transformative policy needs to be opposed now rather than after Louisville starts handing out contracts to build ‘Smart roads’ instead of Smart transit. Transit advocates can expect jeering and catcalls from the automobile ‘horde.’ But the grip on public transportation policy feels more like a fascist putsch. Any one can see that building a substantial light rail system fits these times of, climate change impacts, epidemic asthma, choking congestion during rush hours and increasing road salt contamination of fresh water streams. The automakers are fiddling while America dies on the highways.

  5. There are people posting here who live in some sort of idealistic dreamworld. The convenience, privacy, and even relative safety of the private automobile will always win out as long as Americans are free to choose. Do you honestly believe that the average adult is going to willingly ride his bike to the grocery store on a cold or rainy night? Can you imagine most of us sorting through bus schedules and transfers for a quick, spur-of-the-moment trip to the mall or the hardware store? Is my grandmother safer in her own car with the doors locked or is she more vulnerable waiting by herself after dark at a public bus stop? There are reasons why the vast majority of us have chosen to drive ourselves and our families rather than opting for the less convenient and more dangerous “pillars” of regressive transportation like the “bicycle, mass transit, pedestrian advocacy.” Absolutely walk and cycle where it is safe and when the weather is nice. Take the bus downtown if you have a set, 9-5 sort of schedule. With that said, only the willfully naive could force themselves to believe that cycling, walking, or bus riding should replace the car for the residents of most areas of our city and our country.

  6. Jeff you kind of shot down your own argument. They’re not advocating bicycles for the sake of bicycles, or walking for the sake of being ‘different’. Their whole point is how our current infrastructure makes bus schedules and sustainable transportation practically impossible to achieve and hideously complex/burdensome. They’re advocating alternate transportation that will spur sustainable development. They really want a paradigm shift to walkable, non gas guzzling cities, and it is idealistic and unforeseeable today outside of downtown San Fransisco and New York City; but people know cities used to not be this way.

    I’m sure you’ve lived your whole life in an area where you’ve had to drive everywhere (as have I), but unfortunately you can’t see it from a different perspective. They are imagining a world where a ‘spur of the moment’ trip to the hardware store doesn’t require a gallon of gas and an hour fight through rush hour traffic after getting off work. It could be a walk to the corner and back; which really is much more simple. We’ve reduced ourselves to not being able to use the mode of transportation God gave us: walking.

    You can believe what you want to believe, but if you think that our current way of life is something you want to have your grandkids and their kids inherit then I’m sorry about ya. It’s a very unsustainable path we are on, and I’m thankful there is a local website that sees that. Many cities, including Louisville, won’t know what hit them when gas prices are back above $4 and rising, it’ll happen and it’ll get ugly just like it did in 2008.

  7. We are people, not “masses”. Please refrain from calling transit “mass transit”. It is demeaning to both transit and the public who chose to use it. Freight trains, barges, and trucks carry “mass”. Light Rail, subways, and buses carry the Public.

    Thank you.

    David Coyte

  8. Americans only “choose” cars en masse because that form of public transport is heavily subsidized as a result of gas taxes that don’t approach the cost of building and maintaining roads and free from the extreme roi scrutiny that is levelled against mass transit proposals, not to mention our absurd system of free parking. If Americans had to pay the true cost of car ownership, driving, parking, and even environmental damage, we would undoubtedly be living in cities that resemble European ones, where a much higher percentage of people use clean, efficient, and timely public transport to accomplish their daily tasks without having to expend inordinate amounts of money and time on car maintenance and insurance, even the elderly who you seem to think are incapable of navigating bus or train routes. As American cities begin bankrupt themselves maintaining vast amounts of infrastructure in single use districts that are so spawled out vehicle ownership is a necessity (and they already are) and gas prices begin to return to normal and the gas tax reflects the actual cost of what it is meant to pay for, things will change as people choose to live where they work and can accomplish all of their errands without getting into a car and cities encourage development that allows people to do so.

  9. Wish there was a like button, because there are many good comments here.

    Cities everywhere in this country are beginning to wise up to the fact that car sprawl was a massive mistake. It was a financial mistake, both for individual families who are forced to maintain one or more cars, and municipalities who are forced to maintain all that asphalt. It was an environmental mistake, because cars are noisy, polluting, carbon blah blah. And, more difficult to quantify, but, let’s call it a spiritual mistake as well. We basically gave the middle finger to everybody who cannot operate a car; the poor, obviously, but also our children, and seniors, who are now burdens. And of course, all the traffic deaths. But these are always shrugged off.

    Some cities did not make the mistake of tearing everything down and only building sprawl. These cities have the highest property values per acre. Either because they are economic powerhouses (think SF, NYC, Boston, …), or because they became tourist destinations (think Charleston, Miami Beach, …) . This is not a coincidence. Money talks, and it speaks loudly in favor of walkable neighbourhoods.

    The car is good for the things you see in car commercials; hauling stuff, long distance trips, leisurely drives in the country,.. Then, a car is indeed freedom and genuinely amazing. For all the rest, cars are a drag.

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