Traffic Deaths Rise, Despite Supposedly Safer Cars

Experts aren't sure what's causing rise in fatalities, though signs point to bigger sales of larger vehicles
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 1, 2023 4:50 PM CDT
Cars Are Supposedly Getting Safer, Yet Deaths Keep Mounting
A roadside memorial for cyclist Alyssa Milligan is seen Sept. 15 along state Highway 100 near Percy Warner Park in Nashville, Tennessee. Milligan was struck and killed by a pickup truck near the site while riding with a friend the previous week.   (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Alyssa Milligan was someone who intuitively knew when another person needed help, encouragement, or a kind word. Although she was new to Tennessee, the 23-year old physical therapy student, whose mother called her "Sweet Alyssa," had already made many close connections, especially within the tight-knit cycling community around Nashville. Then she was killed this month, struck by a pickup truck while cycling with a friend. Roadway deaths in the United States are mounting, despite government test data showing vehicles have been getting safer, per the AP. While the number of all car-related fatalities has trended upward over the last decade, pedestrians and cyclists have seen the sharpest rise: more than 60% between 2011 and 2022.

That figure coincides with a steep increase in sales of SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans, which accounted for 78% of new US vehicle sales in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Current US ratings only consider the safety of the people inside the vehicle. The National Association of City Transportation Officials is now leading an effort asking US transportation officials to begin factoring the safety of those outside of vehicles into their five-star safety ratings. "We don't know exactly what's going on with the increase in pedestrian fatalities. It certainly seems like the increase in bigger vehicles is contributing to it," said Jessica Cicchino, VP of research at the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"Many studies have shown that larger vehicles like SUVs and pickups are more likely to kill or seriously injure pedestrians and cyclists when they're involved in a crash," she said, noting that large vehicles are more likely to strike people in the head and vital organs, rather than the legs. The design of these vehicles can also pose visibility problems. An IIHS study of crashes with pedestrians at intersections found that the vehicles most likely to be involved in left-turn crashes were SUVs and pickups, suggesting "they might be having a harder time seeing some of those pedestrians," Cicchino said. Thanks to vehicle improvements, seatbelt laws, and other changes, fatal crashes in the US trended downward for decades, hitting a low of 29,867 in 2011. But that trend has reversed.

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Government estimates of fatal crashes in 2022 show a 43% increase to 42,795—partially thanks to increases in speeding and drunk driving and decreases in seatbelt use. Fatal crashes also increased as a percent of total miles driven. Pedestrian and cyclist deaths increased by 64% since 2011, to an estimated 8,413 in 2022. John Capp, the director of vehicle safety technology, strategy, and regulations at General Motors, stressed there isn't enough data about pedestrian traffic deaths to understand the causes. He also acknowledged there are tradeoffs in design, and that safety emphasis in the past has been on the people inside of vehicles. "Ultimately, there's less we can do when someone is hit outside a vehicle," he said. "That's why we're focused on pedestrian crash avoidance." Much more here.

(Read more car safety stories.)

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