United States

More Than 35,000 Die Nationally in Traffic Crashes in 2015, Ending 50-Year Trend of Decline

Pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities increased to a level not seen in 20 years

What to Know

  • Traffic deaths have declined annually for the last five decades until now
  • Federal officials say job growth and low fuel prices have contributed to a rise in driving
  • Pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities increased to a level not seen in 20 years

More than 35,000 people died in traffic crashes nationwide in 2015, ending a five-decade trend of declining fatalities with a 7.2 percent increase in deaths over the previous year, federal officials say. 

The data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed traffic deaths rising across nearly every segment of the population. The last single-year increase of this magnitude was in 1966, when fatalities rose 8.1 percent year over year.

“Despite decades of safety improvements, far too many people are killed on our nation’s roads every year,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Solving this problem will take teamwork, so we’re issuing a call to action and asking researchers, safety experts, data scientists, and the public to analyze the fatality data and help find ways to prevent these tragedies.” 

Ten years ago, the number of traffic deaths was nearly 25 percent higher, with 42,708 fatalities reported nationwide in 2005. Since then, safety programs have helped lower the number of deaths by increasing seat belt use and reducing impaired driving, federal officials say. Vehicle improvements, including air bags and electronic stability control, have also contributed to reducing traffic fatalities. After a decade-long downward trend, traffic deaths in 2015 increased by nearly one third compared with 2014. 

According to NHTSA, job growth and low fuel prices were two factors that led to increased driving, including increased leisure driving and driving by young people. More driving can contribute to higher fatality rates, the agency says. In 2015, vehicle miles traveled increased 3.5 percent over 2014, the largest increase in nearly 25 years. 

Pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities increased to a level not seen in 20 years. Motorcyclist deaths increased by more than 8 percent. NHTSA also noted human factors continued to contribute to the majority of crashes. Almost half of passenger vehicle occupants killed were not wearing seat belts. Research shows almost one in three fatalities involved drunk drivers or speeding, the agency said. One in 10 fatalities involved distraction. 

“The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities.” 

In response to the increase in traffic deaths, DOT, NHTSA, and the White House are issuing a call to action to involve a wide range of stakeholders in helping determine the causes of the increase.

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