Automobile-related Deaths On the Decline, While Motorcycle Deaths Plateau

While official reports will not be released until later this fall, initial projections from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that traffic fatalities in the U.S. during 2011 will be the lowest on record. The projections estimate auto fatalities for 2011 to be at 32,310, down almost 2% from last year's 32,885.

If the figures hold true, they will be the lowest since the NHTSA first starting keeping records in 1949. This marks the fifth consecutive year that auto fatalities have been on the decline, after reaching their peak in 2005 at 43,510. The projected numbers for 2011 will mark a 26% drop since the peak in 2005.

One possible explanation for the decline in fatalities is that preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) dropped by approximately 35.7 billion miles, or about a 1.2% decrease, from 2010 to 2011. The numbers indicate that the substantial decrease in driving greatly reduces the chance of fatalities.

Additionally, eight of the NHTSA's 10 zones experienced declines in 2011 as well. The only region to show an increase was NHTSA Region 9, which includes Hawaii, California, and Arizona. That region increased by 3.3%. Region 6, which includes New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi, was the only other region that didn’t decrease, as numbers remained constant from 2010 to 2011.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our two-wheeled friends. In a report released last Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association, motorcycle fatalities in the first nine months of 2011 were just 1.7% lower than all of last year's totals. The projected findings from all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. showed that while motorcyclist fatalities decreased in 23 states, they were on the rise in 26 other states.

There are likely several factors to blame for the increase. For example, high gas prices and the strengthening economy have likely led to the recent increase in motorcycle fatalities. During a strong economy, people have more disposable income, which may account for why motorcycle sales tend increase during these more prosperous periods. High gas prices also result in more riders taking to the roads because even big-bore and high-performance motorcycles can get better average fuel economy than most passenger vehicles.

The study also blames a repeal of universal helmet laws for the rise in motorcycle fatalities. Despite being a proven tool to reduce deaths in motorcyclists by reducing head injuries, only 19 states require riders to wear a helmet. This is down from 26 states in 1997.

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