Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Butcher's Bill

The butcher's bill is in for last year: 43,200 highway fatalities in 2005, up from 42,636 in 2004. That's a rate of 1.46 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles travelled, up from 2004's 1.44. About 55% of the passenger vehicle occupants who died were not wearing seat belts compared to an overall seatbelt usage of 82%. Of course, not everyone gets killed; there were 2.68 million injuries in 2005, down a bit from the 2.79 million in 2004. It gets expensive; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that these highway crashes cost the nation $230 billion, or $820 a person.

These are from a preliminary NHTSA report; the final report later this summer will contain additional information. It is notable that our two-wheeled compatriots on motorcycles died in larger numbers, too, 4,315 last year, up from 4,008 in 2004 and the eighth straight year's increase. It looks like bicyclists are holding about steady, at 720 dead in 2005 compared to 725 in 2004. However, we got injured more, 45,000 injuries versus about 40,000 in 2004.

I'd love to see how many people have died in highway crashes since I started driving, in 1974. There is an excellent data set at FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System) which I supplemented with some InfoPlease stats going back to 1983. From 1983 to 005, there have been 987,764 people killed in highway crashes. The figures from 1974 through 1982 would take that up another 400,000 dead, I expect (there were more than 50,000 killed in 1975 alone), for a total in the 1.4 million dead range since I first took to the roads in a car.

At some level we accept these brutal and random deaths as part of the cost of convenient transportation, but it's still worth contemplating the full extent of the slaughter, about 5 people an hour (if the deaths were evenly distributed throughout the day, which they're not) day in, day out, all year long. As a useful comparison, the roughly 2,900 dead on 9/11/2001 shocked us as a nation and has led to huge consequences in foreign policy, domestic freedoms and our nation's direction. Part of the shock of that morning was the random nature of the deaths, window washers, waiters, secretaries, titans of Wall Street, all caught up and suddenly killed in the midst of their daily routine. Given the 118 people a day, on average, killed on our nation's roads, about as many people have died since April 1 with much the same sudden randomness but with little attention unless the victims are famous, particularly cute or if they died in a particulary harsh way.

The NHTSA press release came out, appeared briefly on the news tickers and was pushed down by later stories, discontinuing oil into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Brett Favre's staying with the Packers, rumours of a new White House Press Secretary and all the other daily white noise. Forty three thousand dead hardly merits any attention.

Be careful out there.


rigtenzin said...

I thought I was the only person complaining about highway deaths. I don't understand how we can brush these numbers off so easily year after year. Even people who have loved ones killed or seriously injured in auto crashes eventually go on about their way to a degree that I don't understand. I guess we accept the highway deaths as unavoidable. With so little effort, we could adopt safer driving styles. But we just drive as fast and recklessly as we think we can get away with.

Thank you for your post. We can continue to spit in the wind. Because this isn't going to change soon.

Michael Lemberger said...

Yup, I've compared the daily highway carnage to 9/11 also, but I almost always get the same response:

"9/11 was (evil, politically motivated, brazen, shocking...take your pick) but we accept highway deaths as part of the risk we take when we get behind the wheel"

To which I respond:

"Sure. But the people who die in traffic crashes are no less dead."