The biggest drop . . . ever. Drunk driving deaths are plunging across the country. In 2007 there were 13,041 persons killed in alcohol-related crashes on our nation’s highways. Last year there were 11,773, a stunning drop of 9.7%. Total fatal crashes were down by the same percentage. These raw numbers for total crashes have not been seen since the 1920’s, and for alcohol-related not since NHTSA began keeping track in the mid 1970’s. So what is going on?
First, the bad news. The most telling of these statistical trends are the equal rates of drop comparing total to alcohol-related fatal crashes. This means there was no great law change, enforcement effort, or dramatic change in drunk driving behaviors. Another compelling statistic is the fact that total vehicle crashes (fatal, non-fatal, alcohol and non-alcohol) fell by only 3.5%. Again, the question is begged, “What is going on?”
Historically, from year to year, the United States on average sees a 1% increase in the number of vehicle miles traveled and an addition ½% increase in the number of vehicles (reflecting the growth rate of the US). This means that if nothing else changed one should see an increase of 1&½% in all of these figures each year. But 2008 was radically different, vehicle miles driven dropped a huge 3.4%. There were two reasons for this drop. The first was a springtime march in gasoline prices to above $4, the second was the economic freefall that occurred in the Fall. You will notice the number of miles driven almost matched the drop in total crashes (3.4% versus 3.5%.
Now the good news. From the statistics mentioned above, you would expect a similar drop in fatality rates; but the drop was almost three times the expected rate.
For the third time, the question is begged, “What is going on?”
In a nutshell, if you have a relatively static number of crashes and a large drop in fatalities, the lack of fatal injuries in those crashes means that the vehicles are much safer in a crash. Why? Seat belt usage, preponderance of multiple airbags within vehicles, reinforced vehicle compartments, etc., all play a huge role in vehicle occupants not getting their last ride in a hearse. A two vehicle crash that would have killed both drivers in 1972, would probably result in walk-aways if redone in 2008 vehicles.
Within the alcohol-related fatalities there was good news too. Five smaller states actually saw increases in their numbers in 2008, but they were more than offset by huge decreases (20%+) in alcohol related fatalities in states that mandate ignition interlocks for all drunk drivers.
And the best news? Fatalities are continuing their drop in 2009.