It’s official; 2009 state-level NHTSA traffic fatality figures published

Get them here.

Here’s a typical national news story, from the LaTimes Traffic Deaths and Injuries Plummet in 2009: “Fatalities drop 9.7% from 2008 as the number of deaths dips to its lowest point since 1950, the Transportation Department says.” The official toll for 2009 is 33,808.

Closer to home, the total for 2009 in Arizona of 807 traffic fatalities represents a significant year-over-year drop that began in 2006, when there were 1,293 fatalities.

Per mile (VMT) figures won’t be available for awhile; it appears Arizona, which is consistently more dangerous than US averages will continue to close the gap.

Per capita figures show Arizona, again, consistently more dangerous than US averages, but continuing to improve.

Bicyclist Statistics

Bicyclists, statistically did not fare well in 2009. At 25 deaths, that is 6 higher than 2008, bucking the overall trend. Though the usual caution applies, the number of cyclist deaths is (thankfully) quite small, so a variation of just a few makes large percentage differences, and trends are harder to discern year-over-year.

Prior to the official release, i was aware of 16 fatalities; I am now aware of another 9 but they are  identified only by date time and (usually) location — but not name.  I was shocked to find out that Phoenix had 9 fatalities, of which I only knew about 4 previously. How can that be?

You can view a summary spreadsheet of each of the 25 fatalities here.

There is a detailed report available: Manner and Fault in Bicyclist Traffic Fatalities: Arizona 2009.

Arizona “Benefits”?

The Arizona Republic’s take included the odd conclusion that “Arizona benefits from being a younger state” thus the roads here are newer thus safer.

Arizona benefits from being a younger state. Because most development here is relatively recent, the roads are newer and designed to safer, more modern standards.

That means wider lanes and shoulders, better signs, smoother curves and banks, more guard rails and more innovations such as rumble strips, which are ruts in the sides of highways that alert drivers when they veer off the road.

“These are things people drive by every day which they may or may not notice. But they all contribute to make our roads safer,” said Laura Douglas, an Arizona Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

Rumble strips, for example, reduce the accident rate by a third, she said. ADOT also paints extra-thick road stripes, installs new guard rails that cushion crashes and uses larger, easier-to-see traffic signals, Douglas said.

Arizona traffic death toll drops to a 16-year low 9/11/2010, The Arizona Republic

This might be true in isolated examples, such as the rumble strips. Overall, though, this ignores the human-behavior dimension of driving. So, e.g. newer roads are much wider and straighter and the likely result is that drivers will drive faster. Maybe you’ll get relatively fewer wrecks but the ones that occur will be more violent as a result. If you look at the state-level NHTSA figures you will find the safest state is….. drumroll please… Massachusetts! A very old state. Arizona’s VMT rate is over twice as deadly as Massachusett’s. The disparity in per capita rate, since Arizonans drive more miles, is even worse.

Massachusetts happens to be the safest state in the US, but it’s not an outlier, the relationship holds up generally — states where most development pre-dated automobiles have far lower death rates, and vice versa.

“Better” roads also have a vicious circle effect of raising the number of miles driven, thus exposing one to more risk, albeit a decreasing risk per mile. In other words, dwelling on rate per VMT is misleading. Likewise, “better” vehicles, which are from an engineering perspective are much safer, have not yielded the expected improvement. Since as usual, human-behavior kicks in and drivers, knowing their vehicles are “safer”, (unconsciously or not) drive just a little more risk.