Traffic deaths edge lower, but 2017 stats paint worrisome picture

Key Points
  • Traffic deaths in the U.S. pulled back slightly in 2017, according to the National Safety Council.
  • There were an estimated 40,100 motor vehicle deaths last year, or a drop of 1 percent from the prior year.
  • Experts suggest distracted driving and higher speed limits are offsetting the benefits of safety systems like automatic emergency braking and increased seat belt usage.
An 85 mph speed limit sign is placed on the 41-mile-long toll road in Austin.
Ricardo B. Brazziell

After spiking higher for two straight years, traffic deaths in the United States pulled back slightly in 2017, according to a new report by the National Safety Council.

The NSC estimates there were 40,100 motor vehicle deaths last year, which would be a drop of about 1 percent from the total of 40,327 in 2016.

"This is good news and bad news," said Deborah Hersman, CEO of the National Safety Council. "The total number of fatalities is not getting worse, but the situation is not getting better."

Hersman points out traffic-related deaths, including pedestrians and cyclists, are not falling as much some would expect given the advancement in auto safety technologies, like automatic emergency brakes, and the increased use of seat belts.

Behind the scenes at Waymo's top-secret testing site
Behind the scenes at Waymo's top-secret testing site

She expects those trends are not having a bigger impact due to a number of factors, including distracted driving and higher speed limits.

"There are a number of states that have raised speed limits, some now have stretches at 80 or 85 miles per hour," she said.

One state where higher speed limits may have contributed to a rise in the estimated number of deaths is Texas. The NSC estimates traffic fatalities in Texas have jumped 7 percent from 2015 to 2017, though the number of deaths fell slightly from 2016 to 2017.

Separately, Hersman says drivers continue to focus on smartphones, in-car infotainment systems and other distractions when they should be focused on the road.

"We know it's happening even though distracted driving data is hard to come by," she said. "Police reports on accidents often don't report if the driver was distracted and in many accidents, people don't self-report themselves."

While the latest estimate on traffic deaths is a sobering reminder of the dangers on American roads, there is some encouraging news in the report.

For example, the NSC estimates traffic fatalities in New York fell 3 percent last year and have dropped 15 percent over the last two years. Safety advocates say the decline may be due to New York City's push to eliminate traffic deaths by lowering speed limits, adding bike lanes and more pedestrian shelters.

"Changes like those being made in New York can save lives," Hersman said