Since 1899, the federal government has been keeping records and statistics on
motor vehicle accidents
and fatalities. A spike in traffic fatalities in the 1960s led to the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1970. Numerous occupant and vehicle safety standards have been enacted since, and as a result, there has been a general decline in traffic deaths since 1972. The decline has not been without peaks and valleys, but the trend continues downward. In 2008, fatalities among young drivers (16-24) dropped to its lowest point since 1982.

The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which began operating in 1975, identifies the biggest factor for fatal car crashes from 2005 to 2009 to be the failure to stay in the proper lane. However, there are many factors that could cause a failure to stay in the proper lane. The other top five causes usually involve alcohol and/or drugs, distraction (eating, texting, talking, etc.), and speeding. Advancing technology has brought with it the emergence of new distractions such as texting while driving and DVD screens built into dashboards and sun visors.

Although it is generally considered to be a leading cause in automobile accidents today, accurate numbers regarding texting-while-driving are hard to find. A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that the average driver frequently takes their eyes off the road for up to five seconds while texting – long enough to travel the length of a football field. Reaction times and stopping distances have also been proven to double when a driver is texting while driving. That is significantly more impaired than even a driver who legally drunk. Many times, drivers who are texting are too distracted to hit the brakes at all.

Another factor considered in traffic accidents is the time and day they occur. Statistically, the most dangerous time to be out driving is from midnight to 3 a.m., as well as Saturday and Sunday mornings. With drinking and partying more common on Friday and Saturday nights, staying off the roads at these times could be considered common sense. It is frightening to think that many of these drunk drivers are also texting while driving. If driving must be done at those times, a safe practice is to take the less traveled roads if possible. This is because distance can be maintained from other vehicles and problem drivers are more easily identified.

The percentage of auto accident fatalities related to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over .01 remained consistent over the same period of time, toggling between 37 and 38 percent, although the numbers themselves declined from nearly 16,000 to just over 12,700, reflecting the declining number of fatal crashes overall.

Another way to look at traffic -fatality numbers is by deaths-per-distance -traveled. The number of fatalities for every 100 million-vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has declined steadily from 1.46 to 1.13. Those numbers appear small considering how large the VMT number is. However, looking at fatalities per 100,000 puts it in better perspective: 14.71 in 2005, down to 11.01 in 2009 – that is one death per every 9,083 people on the road.

Legislation such as minimum-drinking-age laws and testing standards has helped, but a large factor contributing to this downward trend in traffic fatalities is the advances that vehicle manufacturers have made in safety and technology. Anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, airbags, and improved restraint systems (especially for children) have saved many lives. Many of the safety improvements in passenger cars were adapted from the changes NASCAR mandated in the first couple of years following the on-track death of iconic racecar driver Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 of February, 2001. Improved motorcycle helmets and riding gear have increased survival chances for motorcyclists as well.

The addition of bicycle lanes on streets across the country has improved the statistics of fatalities among bicycle riders. That number has declined from 757 fatalities in 2005 to 600 in 2009. The most frightening statistic for bicyclists is that there is less than a 10% chance of survival when struck from the front by a motor vehicle. There is more than a 90% survival rate when a cyclist is hit from any other direction. The lesson here is to always ride with traffic as opposed to traveling against it.

The overall drop in traffic fatalities in the U.S. from 2008 to 2009 is -10%. Connecticut showed the largest percentage at -26%, with Nevada in a close second at -25%. The numbers involved were also close – 302 down to 223 and 324 down to 243 respectably. In contrast, North Dakota and Rhode Island showed the worst changes in percentage, up 35% and 28%, although the numbers involved (223 up from 169 combined), were less than Connecticut or Nevada alone.

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