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January 5, 2015 4:00 AM, EST

Editorial: NHTSA’s Fatalities Report

This Editorial appears in the Jan. 5  print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Of all the reports that cross our desks, few have as much emotional effect as the fatality report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

When looking at life-and-death trends on our highways, it can be easy to find data that back up what you think is good public policy — or you can discount that with which you disagree.

Overall, though, progress is being made. Deaths from all crashes declined 3.1% in 2013 to 32,719 from the year before, and injuries were down 2.1%.

The fatality rate also matched a historic low — 1.1 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Somewhat overlooked in the report is the fact that total crashes actually increased, as seen by an almost 3% rise in incidents that caused property damage but no injuries. That makes the low fatality rate even more impressive, and we are most pleased to see that new vehicle safety features appear to be working.

Despite technological advancements, NHTSA notes a grim and stubborn fact: “Some motor vehicle crashes are not survivable.”

Consider just how many thousands of deaths in 2013 may have been easily avoided.

• More than 10,000 people lost their lives in alcohol-impaired driving crashes. While down 2.5% from 2012, this category still accounts for almost one-third of all fatalities.

• Even though a record low of 21,132 passenger vehicle occupants died in 2013, nearly half were not wearing seat belts.

• There were more than 11 times as many helmetless motorcyclist fatalities in states without universal helmet laws compared with those that have such laws — 1,704 versus 150.

We certainly want manufacturers to keep working on safer vehicles, but drivers and passengers also should remember that simple safety steps can offer huge payoffs.

In terms of truck-specific data, the report offered a mixed and incomplete picture. Truck-involved fatalities rose by 0.5%, or 20 deaths, while the number of truck-involved injuries fell by about 9,000.

Without factoring in the miles traveled by trucks in 2013 — which likely rose as the economy improved — it is difficult to put the 0.5% uptick into proper context.

Likewise, there is no information offering a finer breakdown of the fatalities and injuries. That is of particular interest for 2013 because of the debate surrounding the change to the hours-of-service restart provision that took effect on July 1 of that year.

Regardless of those exact figures, no absolute conclusion can be reached from any one year. But quickly releasing more detail can help bring more clarity to an issue so many believe is so crucial for truck safety.