By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. traffic deaths fell in 2019 for the third straight year even as overall road use increased, according to preliminary government data released Tuesday.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported an estimated 36,120 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year, down 1.2% from 36,560 in 2018, even as travel rose 0.9% to 3.23 trillion miles.
The fatality rate was 1.10 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from 1.13 in 2018. Last year was tied for the second lowest annual fatality rate in U.S. history.
“We’ve continued focusing on the behaviors that we all know are unsafe: failing to wear a seat belt, speeding, driving while impaired, driving while distracted,” Deputy NHTSA Administrator James Owens said in an interview.
As recently as 2007, 41,259 people died on U.S. roads and the fatality rate was 1.36 per 100 million vehicle miles, and 51,091 people died in 1980 when the fatality rate was three times higher than the current rate.
NHTSA has been grappling with a recent spike in pedestrian deaths that some attribute to more distraction and use of electronic devices. In 2018, the number of pedestrians killed rose to its highest level since 1990 climbing 3.4% to 6,283.
Early data suggests in 2019 pedestrian deaths fell 2% and bicyclist deaths dropped 3%.
U.S. traffic safety officials are concerned about what happens when tens of millions of commuters return to work after spending an extended period at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Owens noted some data suggests there has been significant additional speeding on emptier U.S. roads in recent weeks.
NHTSA opted to delay some spending on public awareness campaigns and high-visibility traffic enforcement because of the steep reduction in driving.
“We’re going to be ramping up our campaign efforts on raising public awareness over the next couple of weeks and months,” Owens said, saying it would focus on states where the stay-at-home orders are being lifted first.
Owens said the agency is gearing up to remind motorists to drive safely. “When you get back on the road — now is the time to remember all the safe driving practices that you had,” Owens said.
Governors Highway Safety Association Executive Director Jonathan Adkins said Tuesday that “as states begin to reopen businesses and drivers resume their normal patterns, pent up demand could lead to an increase in crashes.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Kim Coghill and Lisa Shumaker)