NHTSA Reports Lowest Traffic Fatalities Since 1949, Distracted Driving Still an Issue

National traffic fatality and injury figures for 2010 were announced today by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The numbers show a decrease from 2009, and reportedly mark the lowest level since 1949. Also released today were NHTSA’s numbers from the new distracted driving measure. The measure was recently revised to give a more accurate snapshot of the relationship between traffic deaths and distracted driving, a problem LaHood has strived to address since taking office as Secretary of Transportation.

A total of 32,885 highway deaths were reported, at a fatality rate of 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2010. NHTSA says this number is reduced from 2009, which saw 1.15 deaths per 100 million miles. Overall, traffic fatalities declined in most categories last year, with fewer deaths involving passenger cars and light trucks, and also fewer deaths involving drunk driving. Fatalities among pedestrians, motorcyclists, and large truck occupants, however, were on the rise.

NHTSA also introduced its new measurement category for 2010, called “distraction-affected crashes.” This measurement replaces the previous “distraction-related” category of 2009, which took into account whether or not a cell phone was present in a vehicle. The new measurement focuses on distractions most likely to affect involvement in a crash, such as dialing a phone, texting, and outside distractions. By the new measurement criteria, an estimated 3092 distracted-affected deaths were recorded in 2010.

But NHTSA believes the actual number could be higher, as lack of witnesses and the reluctance of drivers to admit to behavior makes its difficult sometimes to determine if distractions were involved. A nationwide survey conducted by NHTSA observed drivers in traffic, which took note of individuals seen talking on cell phones. That number hasn’t changed since 2009, standing at 5 percent of all drivers. A new survey, which asked drivers about their perceptions of the risks of distracted driving, sheds even more light on the issue. Survey respondents said they answer calls on most trips, and also said there were few driving situations where they would not answer the phone or respond to a text. These same respondents also said that they feel unsafe when riding in a vehicle while the driver is texting, and that they support bans on texting and cell phone use in the car. NHTSA believes these findings reveal a complex problem, where individuals’ attitudes toward the problem contradict their behaviors.

“The findings from our new attitude survey help us understand why some people continue to make bad decisions about driving distracted,” said NHTSA administrator David Strickland in a release. “We need to maintain our focus on this issue through education, laws, enforcement, and vehicle design to help keep drivers’ attention on the road.”

A new, naturalistic study is planned, where NHTSA will analyze data on distraction collected from about 2000 drivers. Participants will drive cars fitted with cameras and other equipment, which will record behavior over a period of two years. The hope is that this data will help researchers zero in on the relationship between driver behavior and crash involvement. Data from the study will be available beginning in 2014.

Source: NHTSA