Traffic Fatalities Up - Fewer Helmets And More Motorcycle Deaths

A much-awaited report about traffic fatalities has been released with final numbers breaking a 5-decade declining trend. The bad news for bikers, motorcycles are leading the deadly increases.

After months of preliminary reporting, data has been declared official by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with results reporting 35,092 people dying in traffic crashes during 2015 across the nation. This is a 7.2 percent increase in deaths from 2014, with the increase ending a 5-decade trend of declining fatalities. The final data released today by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed traffic deaths rising across nearly every segment of the population.

As a comparison, the last single-year increase of this magnitude was in 1966, when fatalities rose 8.1 percent from the previous year.

"Despite decades of safety improvements, far too many people are killed on our nation’s roads every year," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "Solving this problem will take teamwork, so we're issuing a call to action and asking researchers, safety experts, data scientists, and the public to analyze the fatality data and help find ways to prevent these tragedies.”

Unfortunately, motorcyclists top the list of these rising numbers. First, a look at the overall report.

The estimated number of people injured on the Nation’s roads increased in 2015, rising from 2.34 to 2.44 million injured people. The 7.2-percent increase is the largest percentage increase in nearly 50 years, with the last notable jump being an 8.1-percent increase from 1965 to 1966.  Fatalities  increased  from  2014 to  2015  in  almost  all  segments  of  the  population. This includes passenger  vehicle  occupants,  passengers  of  large  trucks,  pedestrians,  pedalcyclists,  motorcyclists,  alcohol-impaired  driving  fatalities,  male/female,  daytime/nighttime. 

Ten years ago, the number of traffic deaths was nearly 25 percent higher, with 42,708 fatalities reported nationwide in 2005. Since then, safety programs have helped lower the number of deaths by increasing seat belt use and reducing impaired driving. Vehicle improvements, including air bags and electronic stability control, have also contributed to reducing traffic fatalities.

Having an increase despite all these efforts has left many experts stunned.

According to NHTSA, job growth and low fuel prices were two factors that led to increased driving, including increased leisure driving and driving by young people. More driving can contribute to higher fatality rates. In 2015, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased 3.5 percent over 2014, the largest increase in nearly 25 years.

Fatalities of drivers of large trucks was one of the few groups that remained unchanged.

Motorcyclist fatalities increased by 382, an 8.3 percent increase making the number the largest since 2012. The number of motorcyclists injured in accidents fell 4.3 percent with 4,000 fewer when compared to 2014. How many of this number moved from the injured column to that of those who died in accidents could be an interesting conversation.

It’s a debate which is muddied by another statistic, the proportion of people killed “outside the vehicle”. This category looks at motorcyclists, pedestrians, pedalcyclists and other non-occupants and has increased from a low of 20 percent during the period of 1996-2000 to a high of 32 percent in the period of 2012-2015. This number becomes more stunning when compared the other category of the proportion of people killed “inside the vehicle”, such as those in a passenger car, light truck, large truck,  bus, and other vehicle occupants has declined from a high of 80 percent to 68 percent over the same periods.

Motorcycle safety advocates could point the changing leniency in helmet laws which have swept the nation over the last decade. To add to their argument, the recently released data found in States without universal helmet laws, 58 percent of motorcyclists killed in 2015 were not wearing helmets, as compared to 8 percent in States with universal helmet laws.

The final note on this touchy topic, the latest research states if all motorcyclists had been helmeted, then an additional 740 lives would have been saved.

Riders looking for a silver lining in this report could look to deaths of motorcyclists considered under the influence of alcohol. This number fell by a grand total of 5 giving a drop of .04 percent. We didn’t say it was much of a silver lining, more a slither really.

Overall, the report shows almost one in three fatalities involved drunk drivers or speeding with one in 10 fatalities involving distracted drivers.

The study has shocked many safety experts leaving the DOT, NHTSA and the White House to put out a call to action for both public and private institutions and groups involved with traffic safety as well as data collection to come together. Those organizations who have made it their goal to improve traffic safety are an obvious choice to ask for help. Those compiling and analyze data have also been asked to help better understand what is happening on America’s roads.

However, with what is known so far, everyone has a lot of work ahead.

"The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled," said NHTSA Administrator, Dr. Mark Rosekind. "While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities."

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  • Comment Link Cooper



    Cell phone use plays a big factor but I'd also point to the fact that more and more people own vehicles and are driving each year

  • Comment Link Peter weiss

    Peter weiss


    Having an influx of all these foreigners that don't know the rules of the road. In addition not having the concept of driving.

  • Comment Link John



    No mention of cell phones seems odd. U bury it as an unacknowledged category in distracted driving. My guess is that it's a major factor.

    Instead u pick on motorcyclists (btw, it's fewer helmets. Not less helmets). If there was no major change in helmet laws between the 2 years, it can't explain the large increase in the number deaths in 2015. The bigger problem is drivers of other vehicles, many of whom are likely on a cell phone, turning into motorcyclists' paths.

    Again, a major cause of the increase in deaths is cell phone use.

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