The annual report on deadly motor vehicle crashes in the US is usually a pretty depressing read. The last couple years have been especially morbid, with traffic deaths rising at an alarming rate year-over-year. And even though the latest report, released Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, contained a few slivers of optimism — slightly fewer people were killed in 2017 compared to the year prior — there were still enough startling statistics to make the overall picture of public roads in America exceedingly grim.
There were 37,133 people killed in car crashes in 2017, a 1.8 percent decrease from last year’s total. This is notable considering total deaths were up 6.5 percent in 2016, and an alarming 8.4 percent in 2015. This decrease is the first since 2013. The numbers are still too high, but at least they appear to be leveling off, if slightly declining. Fatalities decreased in almost all segments of the population, with the exception of crashes involving large trucks and SUVs. (We’ll get back to that in a moment.)
Here are a few stats that are anything but: more people in cities are being killed in car crashes, and the number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed by automobile drivers is at a 20-year high. This is likely thanks to an increase in VMT in urban communities — cities are bursting at the seams, and as a result there are more people driving. But it represents a fundamental shift in American life. Up until 2015, there were more rural deaths than urban ones. That has now flipped.
Automakers mostly talk about safety and reducing motor vehicle deaths in the context of new technology, like advanced driver assist systems (think Tesla’s Autopilot) and fully driverless cars. It’s become a cliche for car companies and AV startups to cite the 37,000-plus figure at public events or in their press releases as a way to tout their so-called life-saving technology. But rarely do they acknowledge the undeniable truth: the best way to prevent these deaths is to design cities and residential communities to better encourage more walking and biking, and less driving. Fewer cars, not more, will help curb this carnage.