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Traffic deaths increased for the second year in a row

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Fatalities on U.S. streets last year were higher than previously estimated, and experts say they don’t know why

Jeffrey Zeldman

Safety experts issued a dire report in late 2016: After years of going down, traffic deaths in the U.S. were on track to dramatically increase from the year before—which was also a particularly deadly year. Now the final data is in, and the figure is even worse than the estimates.

During the first nine months of last year, 27,875 people died in crashes, compared to 25,808 fatalities during the same period of 2015—an increase of about 8 percent. And the experts say they can’t explain why.

Historically any kind of spike in traffic deaths correlates with an increase in vehicle-miles traveled (VMT). Over the last few years, VMT has been increasing in the U.S. But when the rate of deaths are compared to the VMT increase, the data doesn’t line up: vehicle-miles traveled only increased by 3 percent during the same period. And the increase in deaths was consistent across the country—not a single region had a safer year than the one before, regardless of VMT.

The percentage change in traffic deaths from 2015 to 2016 for the first nine months of each year

Even the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mark Rosekind, can’t explain what's happening. "We still have to figure out what is underlying those lives lost," Rosekind told the Los Angeles Times. "If it was simple, we would already know that."

But it is actually pretty simple. Traffic deaths are most likely to occur on wide, straight roads where it’s easy for vehicles to speed—a fact that’s now been upheld by a state court ruling. When vehicles are moving 25 miles per hour or less, the people involved in a crash are 90 percent likely to survive. Therefore, the only way to ensure that people stop getting killed is to redesign streets so cars can’t speed—and protect other users of the street from vehicular traffic.

Like every safety report it issues, NHTSA will use this opportunity to push safety innovations like connected and automated vehicles. But as this data shows, until we have fully autonomous vehicles, all the onboard technology in the world isn’t helping to reduce deaths.

By making it all about the vehicles of the future, NHTSA is ignoring a more simple and feasible way to reduce traffic deaths today: Stop planning for cars. This data should be an alarming call-to-action for cities across the country to start making big changes now.