WASHINGTON, D.C. — According to updated 2010 fatality and injury data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), highway deaths are at the lowest level since 1949.
Highway deaths fell to 32,885 for the year. The record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities occurred even as American drivers traveled nearly 46 billion more miles during the year, an increase of 1.6 percent over the 2009 level.
The updated information indicates that 2010 also saw the lowest fatality rate ever recorded, with 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from 1.15 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2009.
“While we have more work to do to continue to protect American motorists, these numbers show we’re making historic progress when it comes to improving safety on our nation’s roadways,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “Thanks to the tireless work of our safety agencies and partner organizations over the past few decades, to save lives and reduce injuries, we’re saving lives, reducing injuries and building the foundation for what we hope will be even greater success in the future.”
Among other key findings in the report are that fatalities declined in most categories in 2010, including for occupants of passenger cars and light trucks (including SUVs, minivans and pickups).
Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers dropped 4.9 percent in 2010, taking 10,228 lives compared to 10,759 in 2009.
However, fatalities rose among pedestrians, motorcycle riders and large truck occupants.
NHTSA also unveiled a new measure of fatalities related to distracted driving, called “distraction-affected crashes.” Introduced for 2010 as part of a broader effort by the agency to refine its data collection to get better information about the role of distraction in crashes, the measure is designed to focus more narrowly on crashes in which a driver was most likely to have been distracted.
While NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System previously recorded a broad range of potential distractions, such as careless driving and cell phone present in the vehicle, the new measure focuses on distractions that are most likely to affect crash involvement, such as distraction by dialing a cell phone or texting, and distraction by an outside person or event. New data released by NHTSA using its refined methodology show an estimated 3,092 fatalities in distraction-affected crashes in 2010.
“Even as we celebrate the incredible gains we’re making in reducing traffic fatalities, we recognize our responsibility to improve our understanding of the dangers that continue to threaten drivers and passengers,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said. “That’s why, under the leadership of Secretary LaHood, NHTSA is working to refine the way we collect data on distracted driving and laying the groundwork for additional research to capture real-world information on this risky behavior.”
While the explicit change in methodology means the new measure cannot be compared to the 5,474 distraction-related fatalities reported in 2009, other NHTSA data offer some indication that driver distraction continues to be a significant problem.
The agency’s nationwide observational survey of drivers in traffic remains unchanged between 2009 and 2010, with 5 percent of drivers seen talking on hand-held phones. In addition, given ongoing challenges in capturing the scope of the problem — including individuals’ reluctance to admit behavior, lack of witnesses and in some cases, the death of the driver — NHTSA believes the actual number of crashes that involve distracted driving could be higher.
A new national NHTSA survey offers insights into how drivers behave when it comes to texting and cell phone use while behind the wheel, and their perceptions of the safety risks of distracted driving. Survey respondents indicated that they answer calls on most trips, they acknowledge few driving situations when they would not use the phone or text, but they feel unsafe when riding in vehicles in which the driver is texting, and they support bans on texting and cell phone use.
As part of its commitment to reduce distracted driving, NHTSA is continuing to look for effective data sources. The agency is working to optimize information from crash reports by improving reporting forms and officer training.
In addition, officials said NHTSA will analyze new data on driver distraction from a new naturalistic study in which about 2,000 cars will be fitted with cameras and other equipment that will record driver behavior over a period of two years. Researchers will be able to use these data to associate driver behaviors with crash involvement.
Data from the study will be available in 2014, according to the agency.