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  Chapter Thirteen:

  Traffic Deaths



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Traffic Deaths

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The annual traffic death rate fluctuated until about 1970, when it began to decline markedly. Deaths per vehicle-mile decreased throughout the century.
The motor vehicles that were so large a part of American life in the twentieth century took a heavy toll of casualties. Annual traffic deaths in 1970 (52,627) exceeded total American battle deaths during the Vietnam War (47,355). (See page 206). For every traffic death, there were about 100 traffic injuries. No other mode of transportation was associated with such large numbers of fatalities and injuries. In 1997, 92 percent of transportation-related deaths were occupants of passenger cars, light trucks, and motorcycles, or persons struck by one of these vehicles. The U.S. Department of Transportation logged more than 6 million highway crashes in 1998. In the same year, by contrast, U.S. airlines were involved in 48 crashes in which a total of one person died. 

As the upper chart shows, the traffic death rate per 100,000 population in 1997 was almost exactly the same as it was in 1921, although it had been diminishing for nearly three decades. 

The traffic death rate per mile traveled, shown in the lower chart as deaths per 100 billion vehicle-miles, declined steadily during the century. Between 1925 and 1997, this rate declined by 91 percent. 

The seven-decade decline in the traffic death rate per mile traveled reflects the steady improvement of brakes, lights, steering gear, and tires; the introduction of safety equipment such as seatbelts, padded interiors, crumple zones, and airbags; improved highway design and signals; better driver education; and the slowing of traffic by increased congestion. The decline in the absolute number of fatal traffic accidents after 1990 can be attributed to a significant reduction in drunk driving. 

Alcohol was said to be a factor in about two-thirds of fatal vehicle accidents around 1970. In 1985, the earliest year for which precise figures are available, 52 percent of fatal accidents involved drunk drivers; that figure was down to 41 per-cent by 1995. 

The greatest number of fatal accidents involved a single vehicle, usually a passenger car, colliding with an immovable object or a pedestrian or cyclist. The most dangerous drivers were under age twenty-four and over age eighty. The wide-open highways of the Mountain States were the most dangerous per vehicle- mile. The crowded streets and country roads of New England were the safest.

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Source Notes
Source Abbreviations

HS series Q 230 and Q 232; SA 1997, tables 1017 and 1019; and Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Statistical Handbook, at (accessed September 1, 2000). For the decline in traffic deaths, see SA 1997, tables 10171019.

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