We’re Winning the War on Automobile Deaths

In 1979 there were over 51,000 autombile related deaths in the United States. Since then we have made dramatic improvements to auto safety. The data clearly shows this.

US Auto Deaths 1975-2010

US Auto Deaths 1975-2010

Where did this improvement come from? If we track improvement in auto deaths and control for population, we can show the year to year improvement.

Year to Year Improvement in US Auto Deaths 1975-2010 Controlled for Population

Year to Year Improvement in US Auto Deaths 1975-2010 Controlled for Population

The large improvement zones are ’79-82, ’88-91, and we seem to be in the middle of a monster improvement since 2006.

I don’t have the answer yet for what is working, but here are some interesting dates.
Year the drinking age became universally 21: 1984
First mandatory seat belt law (NY): December, 1984
Passive restraints (Airbags or Automatic seat belts) required in all cars: 1989

I think there’s a time window between something like the 1989 airbag law and when a significant number of airbag equipped vehicles make an appearance on the road.   I have no data on that yet, but the case for a delayed  effect seems accurate.  Another hypothesis isn’t drivers or cars, but improvements to roads and/or law enforcement.  Most major highways around me have added reflectors, signs, and rumble strips to help prevent accidents.  If you have any other hypotheses, post them in the comments.

Sources: Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia.

Update: A lot of great comments, thanks! There are also a bunch over at the Hacker News thread. Many point to miles driven and automobile stability systems as good data to incorporate into the model. I also changed the years of “large improvement” which were off before. They now line up pretty well with recessions, but what is interesting is that we don’t give much back once the economy ramps up again. Maybe everyone buys a newer, safer car then :)

Update: Please read my follow up post on this. The answer is alcohol related accidents.

19 Responses to “We’re Winning the War on Automobile Deaths”


  • It’s not airbags, it’s electronic stability control, and anti-lock breaking systems which started being somewhat standard in “regular” cars around 2006. ex: http://www.thedetroitbureau.com/2011/06/stability-control-systems-yielding-dramatic-drop-in-suv-death-rate/

  • Nice article! You should definitely look up the info on when those ‘requirements’ became standard in cars.

    I think it goes to show that the most responsibility for any accident lies upon the driver themselves — According to your [current] data, seatbelt, airbags and drinking age restrictions showed no real improvement on deaths per year — which is what I’d expect.

    I hotwired the seatbelt alarm in my car to not go off — I don’t like the beep when I’m driving from here to there unbuckled illegally. Sure, I could get a ticket, but you know what? I’m not getting in an accident either. When I pull on the highway, I buckle up. Live Free or Die, baby, the only state in the country without a seatbelt law is New Hampshire.

    It also bears mentioning that your data could be off because in the boom in population versus the number of people who don’t actually have automobiles. Sure lots of families have multiple cars but all the recent college grads I know are happy to live in the city and use public transportation.

    It’s also worth noting that since Massachusetts enacted a public ban and moving violation for Texting While Driving, I have not stopped texting while driving. But, I have, however, moved the placement of my phone from ontop of my steeringwheel (in the middle of my field of vision, very easy to look more on the road and less at the phone) to below the steering wheel (more out away from the road, harder to look at, I won’t get a ticket cuz they can’t see me texting). This is a great example of over enthusiastic government trying to play a role in our every day lives, which your data would tend to agree with judging by the death rate versus legislation not exactly lining up. I’d love to hold my phone on the top of the steeringwheel and text while driving (while focusing primarily on the road) but the legislature will allow officers to ticket me for that, so now I just keep the phone low and away where I’ll never be ticketed but might be a slightly more dangerous driver.

    Ofcourse, it all comes down to common sense. Massachusetts has no ear-to-phone ban, but if I’m driving through Harvard Square in Boston, while I’m on the phone, you bet your ass that I’m paying 1,000 times more attention to what’s going on infront of me, and paying less attention to who I’m talking to on the phone. It’s a matter of what you choose to focus on, and the responsibility is Yours.

    Thanks for the great data and post.

    • Wow, I didn’t expect anyone to admit they drive texting and unbuckled, but thanks for the info. I’m going to guess that population strongly correlates with car ownership, but I’ll have to rule that out as well.

  • It would be interesting to look at deaths per passenger mile, rather than total deaths. Some of the improvement in the last couple years can possibly be attributed to high gas prices and a reduction in how much driving actually happens, for example.

    • Yeah, I have some data on this but only back to 2005, which was the peak per person driving year. Definitely a factor.

  • Changes in public attitude, education, and laws on drunk driving

    Better equipped ERs with more medical expertise in trauma situations, especially in brain injury

    Faster and better emergency response, including airlifting to trauma centers

    Generally richer population + innovation over time = fewer junkers on the road, better tires, brakes and suspensions

    • Better hospitals and medical response is an interesting idea. I could measure that effect by seeing if along with the fatalities we have a corresponding drop in accidents.

  • Would be interesting to add a sparkline for miles driven nationally, which is estimated yearly and varies depending on things like gas prices and the general economic situation.

    That is, perhaps it would be interesting to look at deaths per mile as well as a percentage of the population.

  • What about crumple-zones? Weren’t they a big thing?

    • Like the medical response comment above, this could be measured or rules out by looking at fatalities per accident.

  • Innocent Bystander

    Since when is winning a Vietnam war worth of deaths every two years?

    Things are getting better but very slowly. And it is not just deaths but the cost of accidents and most important the injury toll – about 10X as many people seriously injured as are killed. That’s over a quarter million people a year. A terrible toll.

    This will only get fixed when computers take over driving cars. See http://carcaddar.blogspot.com/2011/08/implications-of-self-driving-cars.html

    • I have thought about this very question. From an economists stand point, I think you’d have to argue that it must be worth it. That said, we should (and are) doing something to fight this problem. I’m just trying to figure out what is working.

    • and if self driving cars become available, I’ll be first in line.

      Ok, maybe 2nd.

  • Have you thought about improvements in tires (tread types, radial, etc) ,road surfaces (asphalt, concrete, chip and tar), and ABS?

  • Another thing to keep in mind is that since about 2004 vehicle miles traveled has flattened out, bucking a decades-long growth trend:

    http://streetswiki.wikispaces.com/Vehicle+Miles+Traveled

    We had a period of historically high gas prices, then a recession, and now a combination of a jobless recovery and relatively high prices.

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