In the first nine months of 2016, traffic deaths rose 8 percent compared to the same period from 2015. During that time, nearly 28,000 people were killed in car accidents. In the first three quarters of 2015, there were 25,800 people who died.
Many people have looked for an explanation for what’s happening, and there are several. One of the most popular theories is that more people are traveling the roads and for longer distances, thanks to the economic recovery. Certainly, there is some truth to this. We do know that people are traveling more. But when we look more closely at the data, that doesn’t account for the entire trend. That’s because, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration points out, vehicle miles traveled from Jan. 1, 2016 through Sept. 30, 2016 were up 3 percent as compared to that same time frame the year before. So we have a 3 percent uptick in vehicle miles traveled and an 8 percent increase in the number of people dying in car accidents.
Something more is going on, and it’s especially concerning when you consider that cars manufactured today are safer than ever. While it’s true we’ve seen record-setting auto recalls in recent years, much of that involves the auto industry catching up with years of failing to recall vehicles with serious defects they should have set straight many years earlier. Meanwhile, we have cars that come standard-equipped with rearview cameras, electronic stability control, blind spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. All of this to say: Driving should be safer than ever, yet it’s not.
NHTSA officials have a few other thoughts about what is going on. As one official noted to The Associated Press, we have a growing number of people who are increasingly on their cell phones. Smartphone use has increased exponentially in recent years, and we cannot discount distraction as a major problem on our nation’s roads.
Another potential factor is that an increasing number of states have legalized marijuana to some extent. Of course, marijuana isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself, particularly when used as medicine, but there is no denying that it can result in impairment, which can render a person unable to safely operate a motor vehicle. There is some evidence backing the theory that this could be a factor, though it’s not conclusive. Specifically, FARS data shows that an increasing number of drivers involved in deadly car accidents have marijuana in their system. What we don’t know is whether the marijuana actually played a role in those deaths. That’s because while a driver with a high level of alcohol in his or her system is almost assuredly drunk, a person with high levels of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) isn’t necessarily high. The disparity is due to the fact that the human body processes these compounds differently. But certainly, this can’t be discounted.
An additional element to consider would be warmer weather. Traffic safety advocates have concluded that the warmer the weather and the longer the daylight hours, the more crashes there are because the more driving people doe. That’s why the number of traffic deaths is so much higher in the summer than the winter. Numerous cities in the U.S. have been recording warmer than normal winters or winters that didn’t start until later, so this could play a role as well.
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Surge in Traffic Deaths Outpaces Increase in Travel, Jan. 13, 2017, Associated Press
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