Why Are Dangerous Car Crashes and Pedestrian Deaths Spiking?

Car crash
A strange car crash in downtown Cincinnati | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Cars are stronger, smarter, and far safer than ever before, thanks to advancements in things like autonomous tech and rigid global chassis structures. New vehicle buyers may now find solace in the fact that bigger or pricier is no longer synonymous with safer, and that even inexpensive, entry-level subcompact options like the all-new Subaru Impreza can offer some cutting-edge safety tech.

Automakers have gone to great lengths to make safety far more than just a set of seat belts and some recall-free airbags, as they look to take pre-collision warning systems and driver assistance packages to new levels. We’re at a tipping point, where manual gearboxes and stamped steel chassis components give way to cockpits that come devoid of steering wheels and pedals, with aluminum and carbon composites holding it all together.

Subaru accident
A totaled Subaru ready for the scrapyard | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

But despite all of these amazing advancements, recent reports from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show vehicle-related fatalities are on the rise, and the reasons for this spike give a fresh face to the dangers of the open road. While many of America’s most dangerous highways continue to claim lives year-after-year for a multitude of different reasons, it’s the way in which drivers handle themselves while behind the wheel that typically means the difference between life and death. Last year, vehicular-related pedestrian deaths reached their highest since 1996.

In order to get a grasp of what’s going on out there, we took data pulled from the NHTSA’s 2016 report on vehicular fatalities and compared it to some of our own coverage regarding road safety, as well as recent revelations from AAA. Here is what we discovered, and what you need to watch out for on the open road.

Death Proof Chevy Nova crash
Kurt Russel as Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof purposefully crashing his Chevy Nova | HorroRviXenKate via YouTube

Pedestrian related deaths spiked in 2015 by 9.5%, accounting for the highest number of fatalities in almost 20 years, as both distracted drivers and the number of people opting to walk to work continues to increase. Modern cars may be safer for their occupants, but they also come loaded with all kinds of distracting tech features, many of which are housed within complex drop-down menus and come attached to controls that cannot always be voice activated.

On top of that, many Americans continue to utilize their cellphones while driving instead of waiting until they reach their destination. While many older vehicles on the road are unable to support Bluetooth connectivity or hands-free controls, take a moment and think about how many times this year you have witnessed someone driving a vehicle with hands-free controls. Once you factor this undeniable truth into the equation, and toss in hordes of pedestrians glued to their cellphones, a terrifying scenario unfolds, where no one seems to truly know what’s going on until it’s too late.

A car crash graph for 2015 that shows the severity of all accidents that year
A car crash graph for 2015 that shows the severity of all accidents that year | NHTSA

Here are a few notable crash characteristics that the NHTSA found to be true across the board when it came to pedestrian deaths. While some may argue that this information comes as no surprise, the rate at which it has suddenly spiked raises questions regarding what drivers are doing differently, as well as the risks involved with urban overpopulation.

– 76% of pedestrian deaths were in urban areas
– 72% occurred at non-intersections
– 74% occurred in the dark

The NHTSA also released a list of notable fatality statistics stemming from the previously gleaned data. While alcohol intoxication unsurprisingly made the cut for causing an unhealthy amount of poorly timed road crossings, it’s the fact that males were being slain at such a rate that makes us wonder if this says anything about how many men walk places as opposed to women.

– 70% of pedestrians killed were male
– The age group with the highest number of fatalities was 50 to 54 years old
– 38% of pedestrians (16-plus years old) killed had a .08% or higher Blood Alcohol Content

wrecked car
A heavily damaged drift car at an event in Ohio | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

But it’s not just pedestrians that need to watch out. Cyclist deaths have seen a significant spike as well, with the NHTSA reporting that pedal-cyclist fatalities have seen their highest increase since 1995. A 12.2% jump in 2015 proves that the risks associated with pedaling around town are greater than one might expect, and that even with dedicated bike lanes and advancements in cyclist safety gear, many drivers in America are still not accustomed to sharing the road. This will be an interesting study to follow over the next few years, as inner-city cycling awareness programs and cyclist detection equipment on cars become more prominent in order to offset the number of bicyclists who get hit by vehicles.

Fatality rates for pedestrians in 2015 were at their highest since 1996, with cyclist deaths at their worst since 1995
Fatality rates for pedestrians in 2015 were at their highest since 1996, with cyclist deaths at their worst since 1995 | NHTSA

The NHTSA released a brief list highlighting notable crash characteristics surrounding vehicles and cyclists. While you do see far fewer cyclists on the road than cars, the rate at which people are opting to pedal places has seen a significant spike, as many millennials move to urban areas where cycling provides a far more financially feasible and worry-free experience over car ownership.

– 70% occurred in urban areas
– 61% occurred at non-intersections
– 47% occurred in the daylight

Another set of statistics from the NHTSA lists what kind of characteristics America is seeing in regard to cyclist deaths and automobiles. It will be interesting to see how these figures change, as more people take to the streets and ride to work, and inner-city development plans place bike paths as a priority.

– Average age of cyclists killed was 45 (a steady increase from 41 years old in 2006)
– 85% of cyclists killed were male
– 22% of those killed had a Blood Alcohol Content of .08% or higher

Meanwhile, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has a different take on what’s causing fatalities. It recently released estimates showing that around 21% of all vehicle deaths involve driver drowsiness, or about 6,755 people in 2015 alone. But even with things like government awareness campaigns and news releases on the matter raising the alarm, AAA says that “the relationship between specific measures of sleep deprivation and crash risk has not been quantified in the general driving population.”

Sleep deprivation and its effects on driving impairment
Sleep deprivation and its effects on driving impairment | AAA

Simply put, the study shows that drivers who sleep fewer than five hours a day, drivers who have had fewer than seven hours of sleep in the past 24 hours, and drivers who have slept for one or more hours less than normal within the past 24 hours have significantly elevated crash rates. The study goes on to say driving after only four to five hours of sleep is similar to getting behind the wheel with a blood alcohol content that is slightly above the legal limit, which is only compounded by the fact that too many people stay up late drinking and then decide to drive home.