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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Chapter 6 Transportation Safety

Monday, February 27, 2017


  • Highway motor vehicle fatalities rose 7.2 percent in 2015 as the 35,092 highway deaths alone exceeded the 2014 number for all transportation fatalities (34,641).
  • Fifteen highway rail crossings were identified as having 10 or more incidents (not necessarily involving fatalities) in the last decade.
  • Pedestrian fatalities represent the third highest number of transportation related deaths in 2015 and have made up an increasing share of the total over the past 5 years, increasing from 12.3 percent in 2010 to 14.5 percent in 2015.
  • The number of people injured in highway motor vehicle accidents increased by an estimated 105,000, to 2.44 million in 2015 – the first increase in the highway injury count since 2012.
  • The total cost of motor vehicle crashes was estimated at $836 billion in 2010, with the broader societal costs, including lost quality of life, accounting for 71 percent of the total, far outweighing the economic costs at 29 percent.
  • Motorcyclist injuries have increased 62.7 percent, from about 58,000 injured in 2000 to 92,000 in 2014.
  • Alcohol use continues to be a major factor in transportation deaths and injuries. Alcohol involvement either by the driver or the pedestrian was reported in 48 percent of all fatal crashes involving pedestrians in 2014. Approximately 29 percent of motorcycle operators involved in fatal crashes were alcohol impaired, and alcohol use was a leading factor in 17 percent of fatal recreational boating accidents in 2015.
  • Approximately 3,500 motor vehicle occupants and motorcyclists who died in crashes in 2015 might have lived if they had used seat belts or motorcycle helmets, and 85 percent of the boaters who drowned in 2015 were not wearing a life jacket.
  • In 2014 pilots reported 238 unmanned aircraft sightings in the United States. There were about 5 times as many sightings (about 1,210) in 2015.

While highway fatalities and injuries increased from 2014 to 2015, highway safety, and transportation safety as a whole, have improved in recent decades, resulting in a notable decline in fatalities and injuries. Despite growth in the U.S. population, the number of licensed drivers, and increased travel by all modes (as discussed in chapters 1 through 3), there were about 7,300 fewer transportation fatalities in 2015 than in 2000a reduction of about 16.5 percent in 16 years. Yet, transportation still accounted for 25.2 percent of the total deaths resulting from unintentional injury in the United States in 2015 [USDHHS CDC VITALITY 2016].

As shown in box 6-A, the timeframe and definitions used to attribute a fatality to a transportation crash or accident differ among modes, reflecting different data collection methods, reporting periods, and information management systems of the various reporting agencies. For example, a death that occurs within 30 days of a crash involving highway vehicles is considered a highway fatality, while a death that occurs within 180 days of a rail incident is considered a rail-related death. Such definitional differences pose challenges when comparing safety records across modes of transportation.1

Fatalities by Mode

As shown in the figure 6-1, there has been a major decrease in both the number and rate of highway fatalities over the last 50 years—with deaths per hundred million miles of highway travel falling from over 5.50 in 1966 to 1.12 in 2015. While figure 6-1 shows that the most dramatic improvement occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, progress continues despite growth in the U.S. population and number of drivers (see figures 6-2 and 6-3).

Although the highway mode accounts for most of the decline in fatalities, other modes, including air carriers, railroads, transit, and recreational boating, also show improved safety records. In 2015 about 1,900 people died in accidents involving the non-highway modes as compared to 2,300 in the year 2000. Relatively few passengers die in train or bus crashes in an average year; however, it is almost an annual occurrence for 700 to 800 pedestrians or people in motor vehicles at highway-railroad crossings to die when struck by a train and by transit vehicles. Both general aviation and recreational boating result in the deaths of several hundred people each year.


Highway fatalities in 2015 grew by 2,353 (7.2 percent) over the 2014 level, from 32,744 to 35,092. This was the first annual increase in highway fatalities since 2012, and the greatest annual fatality total since 2008 [USDOT NHTSA 2016a]. Table 6-1 shows fatality change by highway component between 2014 and 2015; as shown, all categories of highway fatalities increased in 2015.

The biggest numerical increases from 2014 were for occupants of passenger cars and light trucks; the largest percentage increases were for bicyclists and other pedalcyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists [USDOT NHTSA 2016a]. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also found that the highway fatality rate had increased from 1.08 deaths per 100 million highway vehicle-miles of travel in 2014 to 1.12 deaths in 2015.2

In addition to the fatality data, NHTSA also released highway injury estimates for 2015. Unlike fatalities, which are tallied from police accident reports, injuries are estimated from a sample and are subject to sampling errors. NHTSA estimated that injuries in 2015 increased by 4.5 percent in 2015 compared to 2014. The estimated number of injuries was about 2.42 million, up 105,000 from the 2014 estimate of 2.33 million.

Even with the recent spike in the highway fatality rate, from 2000 through 2015 the overall rate of highway fatalities per vehicle- mile of travel (VMT) declined by 26.8 percent (figure 6-2). Over time, occupant protection devices, advances in vehicle design, improved road design, graduated driver licensing for teenagers, expanded education and enforcement of drunk-driving laws, and many other preventative measures contributed to declines in highway vehicles deaths and injuries. Improvements in emergency medical response capabilities also played a role.

In 2015 occupants of passenger cars and other light-duty highway vehicles (e.g., sport utility vehicle, minivan, and pickup truck) comprised 63.9 percent of all transportation fatalities (tables 6-1 and 6-3). About 9,800 fewer occupants of passenger cars and light- duty vehicles died in 2015 crashes than in 2000 [USDOT BTS 2016]. Even with the 2015 fatality increases, there were nearly 10,000 fewer deaths in these two categories than in 2000.

Not all categories of highway fatalities are lower today than in 2000, however. In 2015, 4,976 motorcyclists died—nearly 2,100 more than in 2000 and 390 more than in 2014. Growing ridership is a contributing factor to this increase. Motorcyclists’ share of all transportation fatalities also rose from 6.5 percent in 2000 to 13.5 percent in 2015, the last year for which data for all transportation modes were available. The increase not only reflects the drop in the share of deaths attributable to other highway categories but also nonhighway modes of transportation. As is indicated in figure 6-3, there has been little or no improvement in the fatality rate per vehicle- mile of travel by motorcycle since 2007.3

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of pedestrian deaths each year exceeded pedestrian deaths in 2000, as did deaths of bicyclists and other human-powered cyclists. Pedestrians and bicyclists—who often share the roads with motor vehicles—accounted for 16.7 percent of total transportation-related deaths in 2015, compared to 12.3 percent in 2000.

Fatality rates (measured per 100,000 U.S. population) of pedestrians, bicyclists, bystanders, and other nonoccupants killed when struck by motor vehicles, declined less dramatically, about 10 percent between 2000 and 2014. Pedestrians are more likely to be struck in the dark (72 percent of pedestrian fatalities) and away from intersection crosswalks (71 percent of fatalities) [USDOT NHTSA 2016b].

There are about 5 million more females than males in the United States [USDOC CENSUS 2016]. Yet males comprise about 7 out of 10 highway fatalities. This difference is partially due to the fact that males, on average, drive more than females and thus have a higher rate of exposure to crashes.

Motor vehicle crashes continue to be the leading cause of death for teens aged 16 to 20 years [USDHHS CDC WISQARS 2015]. Teenagers and younger adults had the highest fatality numbers and fatality rates per 100,000 residents in 2014, although their deaths have declined considerably since 2000. A potential contributing factor is that those under the age of 30 in 2014 drove fewer miles than their counterparts in 2000, reducing the exposure to highway crashes.

At least 48 states have established some form of graduated driver licensing (GDL) program to help inexperienced, young drivers safely gain experience while limiting their exposure to high-risk driving conditions, such as night driving and carrying teenage passengers during early months of licensure [GHSA]. A recent review of state GDL program evaluations found that traffic crash outcomes were improved among 16 and 17 year old drivers by 16 and 11 percent respectively. However, this favorable association was not shown in a statistically reliable way for 18 and 19 year old drivers [Masten, S.V., et al.]

As in 2000, the number of males killed on U.S. highways exceeded the number of female fatalities for most age groups in 2015. Overall, males comprised 68.3 percent of highway fatalities in 2000 and 70.9 percent in 2015. Persons under the age of 30 continued to have the highest fatality numbers in 2015, although highway deaths for that age group were lower than for the same age grouping in 2000. The number of highway fatalities for males in their mid-40s to late 60s was higher in 2015 than it was for the men who were in the same age group in 2000 (figure 6-4). This cohort of males in 2015 was more numerous than their 2000 cohort and drove more miles—factors that likely contributed to the higher number of fatalities.

Since 2000 there has been a considerable decrease in highway fatalities per capita across all age groups for both genders. The greatest numbers of fatalities per capita age group in both 2015 and 2000 were among males between the ages of 18 and 30, followed by males 79 and older. Female fatalities per capita in both 2015 and 2000 peaked for those between 16 and 27 years of age, followed by females over the age of 80. The 2000 rates were again higher across all age groups and both genders (figure 6-5).


U.S. air carriers and commuter airlines combined had zero fatalities in 2014 and 1 in 2015. In fact, in 7 of the last 16 years there were no fatalities recorded for flights by U.S. air carriers. During the other years, fatalities per 100,000 flight hours ranged from 0.1 to 3.0—the larger number dating to 2001, when 5 passenger planes crashed, including the 4 hijacked by terrorists on September 11 of that year. Since 2001, the air carrier fatality rate has remained stable and low.

General aviation (GA) fatalities have numbered in the hundreds every year since at least 1960. In 2015 some 376 people were killed in GA accidents, down from 424 in 2014 (table 6-2). Even so, this number is an appreciable drop from previous decades. In the 10 years spanning 1990 to 1999, an average of 716 persons per year died in GA accidents, followed by a drop to 567 deaths on average per year in the following decade. The average for the 2010–2015 period was 423 fatalities annually.

The GA fatality rate per 100,000 flight hours has fluctuated (figure 6-3). While the number of fatalities was fewer in 2015 (376 people) compared to 2000 (596), the number of flight hours in 2014 was 35 percent less, resulting in a higher fatality rate. Another metric of general aviation safety is the fatal accident rate per 100,000 flight hours. This rate is the same whether a plane has one or many occupants who die in a crash. According to preliminary estimates, the GA fatal accident rate for fiscal year 2015 (October 1 through September 30, 2015) was 1.03 per 100,000 flight hours, compared to a 1.10 fatal accident rate averaged over the five prior fiscal years [USDOT FAA 2016a].

Most general aviation accidents involve single- engine, piston-powered airplanes, which account for slightly more than 60 percent of general aviation aircraft and just over half of general aviation flight hours [USDOT FAA 2014]. The loss of inflight control contributes to the majority of fatalities, whereas loss of control on the ground and engine-related system malfunctions were associated with the majority of nonfatal accidents [NTSB 2014a]. General aviation accidents are widely dispersed across the country. In 2014 nearly two-thirds of fatal general aviation accidents resulted in a single fatality, another quarter resulted in two fatalities, and the remainder yielded multiple fatalities.

In addition to general aviation, many fatalities each year result from crashes involving commercial on-demand air services, such as air taxis. These fatalities averaged 24 annually between 2010 and 2015. The safety trend in air taxi and similar services seems to be improving: air taxi deaths averaged 43 deaths per year between 2000 and 2009 and nearly 64 deaths annually between 1990 and 1999.

The popularity of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or “drones,” poses several challenges for aviation safety, which are discussed in box 6-B. There are now more than one million UAS in the United States, and there are increasing sightings of unauthorized drones near airports and airplanes.

Recreational Boating

Recreational boating resulted in 626 deaths in 2015, compared to 610 in 2014, and 560 in 2013—the lowest number in many decades (table 6-2). Despite these recent increases, the number of boating fatalities has trended downward over time. Fatalities averaged about 800 per year in the 1990s and about 700 annually between 2000 and 2009. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, many boating fatalities occurred on calm protected waters, in light winds, or with good visibility. Alcohol use, operator distraction, or the lack of training played key roles in fatal recreational boating accidents. About 76 percent of people who died in recreational boating incidents drowned [USDHS USCG 2016].

Railroad Operations

Unlike highway crashes, boating, or aviation accidents, most fatalities associated with train operations occur outside the train, such as by people who are trespassing (unauthorized presence on track rights-of-way or other railroad land) or who are struck at highway- rail grade crossings. Since 1990 the number of trespassing-related deaths has averaged about 483 per year. The number of trespasser deaths fell for several years beginning in 2007, reaching a low of 400 in 2011. However, the drop was of short duration; since then, there have been year-after-year increases—rising to 470 in 2014 and to 459 in 2015.

Highway-rail grade crossing fatalities averaged about 247 per year in the 2010–2014 period (see table 6-2). The number is far fewer than in the 1990s, when the average fatality count was 550 people per year, or the 2000 through

2009 period, which averaged about 350 fatalities per year [USDOT BTS NTS, table 2-1].4 Many grade crossings are the locations of repeated incidents as shown in figure 6-6. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently identified 15 crossing locations where 10 or more incidents (not necessarily involving fatalities such as property damage only) took place in the last decade [USDOT FRA 2016a].

Of the total railroad fatalities in 2015, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) attributes 250 deaths to passenger train operations and 503 deaths to freight train operations, which involve far more train miles than passenger train-miles. Very few train passengers or crew members die in train accidents. In the 2010 to 2014 period, the total fatality count of people on the train was 39— less than 8 per year. Many trespassing and grade crossing fatalities are the result of suicide. In 2014 there were 266 suicides, according to FRA data [USDOT FRA 2016b].


Transit fatalities averaged about 245 per year between 2010 and 2015.5 Like the railroad mode, most of the fatalities in transit-related accidents are not passengers or transit employees on the vehicle. According to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), passengers on transit vehicles accounted for roughly 10.2 percent of the 236 fatalities in percent of the transit fatalities were considered suicides [USDOT FTA 2015].6

passengers on transit vehicles accounted for roughly 10.2 percent of the 236 fatalities in 2014; another 14.4 percent were people waiting for or leaving the vehicle; 16.1 percent were people in transit stations or other facilities (not including employees). Pedestrians accounted for 29.7 percent of the transit fatalities. Other fatalities involved people in nontransit vehicles and transit workers (4.1 percent). About 25.4 percent of the transit fatalities were considered suicides [USDOT FTA 2015].6

Other Modes

There were about 66 fatalities involving waterborne commercial vessels in 2015; this was less than the 2010–2015 average of 78 deaths per year. Pipeline-related fatalities averaged about 13 deaths per year between 2000 and 2015, with gas pipelines accounting for most of the fatalities.

Injured People by Mode

Most modes showed a decline in injuries between 2000 and 2014. Highway modes, which accounted for 99.5 percent of 2014 transportation injuries, declined by 26.7 percent, bringing the estimated injuries down from 3.19 million in 2000 to 2.44 million in 2015 (table 6-4). However, the reduction in highway injuries was not uniform across vehicle types. The increase in motorcyclist injuries was 62.7 percent, from about 58,000 injured in 2000 to 92,000 in 2014 [USDOT BTS NTS]. This sobering increase was even higher than the 37.7 percent increase in motorcyclist fatalities in the same period. In contrast to fatality counts, which are pulled from police accident reports and a census of all fatal accidents, NHTSA estimates the total number of people injured in highway accidents from a sample because an exact number from the many millions of accidents that occur each year is impracticable to tally. This estimate indicates that about 6,700 people per day were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2015.

In addition to the people injured on the Nation’s highways, in 2014 about 20,000 people were injured in nonhighway-related incidents. Rail and rail transit together accounted for about 16,000 of these nonhighway injuries. These numbers do not count people injured in highway-rail crossing incidents, as they are assumed to be included in the highway mode estimate. The water modes had about 3,400 injured people—mostly from recreational boating.

The injury rate for highway crashes per vehicle miles of travel in 2014 was about one-third less than it was in 2000. The air carrier injury rate (measured by the number of injuries per flight hour) remained relatively low and stable, as did the general aviation injury rate (measured by the number of injuries per flight hour) between 2000 and 2013 (figure 6-7).

Costs of Motor Vehicle Crashes

A 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control focused on the health burden and medical costs of both fatal and nonfatal injuries to highway motor vehicle occupants in crashes. The medical costs of fatal injuries in 2011 totaled about $266 million, the latest year for which medical cost data are available. Nonfatal injuries to motor vehicle occupants from crashes in 2012 involved an estimated 2.5 million visits to emergency rooms or other emergency departments, with an estimated 188,000 visits resulting in hospitalization and lifetime costs of $18.4 billion. Put another way, in  2012, there were about 6,900 emergency department visits and over 500 hospitalizations per day resulting from nonfatal crash injuries to motor vehicle occupants [USHSS CDC 2014].

Medical costs are only one component of the costs of crashes. A separate study of the broader economic costs of motor vehicle crashes estimated these costs as $242 billion in 2010 (the latest year for which economic estimates are available) [USDOT NHTSA 2015e]. These economic costs include the following:

  • lost workplace productivity—$57.6 billion (23.8 percent of economic costs),
  • lost household productivity—$19.7 billion (8.2 percent),
  • property damage—$76.1 billion (31.4 percent),
  • medical expenses—$23.4. billion (10 percent),
  • congestion impacts—$28 billion (11.6 percent), and
  • other crash-related costs—$37.0 billion (15.3 percent).

If averaged across the U.S. population in the study year, motor vehicle crashes cost nearly $784 per person in 2010. When factoring in the $594 billion in comprehensive costs from the loss of life, pain, and injuries, the cost of 2010 motor vehicle crashes totaled about $836 billion. Of this total, economic costs represent 29 percent and lost quality of life represent 71 percent [USDOT NHTSA 2015e].

Compared to other motor vehicle crashes, these costs disproportionately involve motorcycle riders who die or incur serious injuries in crashes [USDOT NHTSA 2015e]. Motorcycles provide little protective shielding to riders, compared to enclosed vehicles; also, there has been a dramatic increase in motorcycle vehicles-miles traveled. Measured by VMT, a motorcyclist in a crash was about 30 times more likely to die than a passenger car occupant and 5 times more likely to be injured, according to the study. In 2010 motorcycle crashes cost $12.9 billion in economic impacts and $66 billion in comprehensive societal costs.

Selected Contributing Factors

A multitude of human, environmental, and vehicle factors contribute to transportation crashes. The most commonly cited causes involve driver or operator errors or risky behaviors, such as speeding, and operating vehicles or carrying out transportation operations while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, while distracted, or while fatigued. Environmental factors include roadway or infrastructure design (e.g., short runway, no road shoulders), hazards (e.g., utility poles at the side of the road, hidden rocks under water), and operating conditions (e.g., fog, turbulence, choppy waters, wet roads). Vehicle factors include equipment- and maintenance-related failures (e.g., tire separations, defective brakes or landing gear, engine failure, and worn out parts) [GAO 2003]. Often it is hard to delineate among the various factors. For example, an impaired or fatigued driver may ignore dashboard alerts about potentially dangerous equipment problems (e.g., low tire pressure), or continue to operate the vehicle when unsafe weather conditions would make it prudent to stop.

Human factors are more likely than not to be recorded for fatal crashes involving passenger vehicles. In 2014 one or more driver-related human factors were recorded for 69.9 percent of the drivers of highway passenger vehicles (cars, vans, pickup trucks, and sport utility vehicles) involved in single-vehicle fatal crashes and 50.1 percent of drivers of passenger vehicles involved in multivehicle fatal crashes [USDOT FMCSA 2016a]. For comparison, one or more (driver-related) human factors were recorded for 55.9 percent of the drivers of large trucks involved in single-vehicle fatal crashes and for 28.4 percent of the drivers of large trucks involved in multivehicle fatal crashes [USDOT FMCSA 2016a].

Speeding topped the law enforcement list for driver-related violations for both passenger vehicles and large trucks. Distracted/inattentive driving was second on the list for large-truck drivers, while impairment (fatigue, alcohol, illness, etc.) ranked second for passenger vehicle drivers [USDOT FMCSA 2016]. In 2014 vehicle factors, most commonly truck tires, were recorded for 5.6 percent of the large trucks involved in fatal crashes and 3.0 percent of the passenger vehicles involved in fatal crashes [USDOT FMCSA 2016].

Alcohol and Substance Abuse

All 50 states and the District of Columbia limit Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent while operating a highway vehicle [USDHHS NIH NIAAA 2014]. Alcohol involvement either by the driver or the pedestrian was reported in 48 percent of all crashes involving a pedestrian fatality in 2014. Many pedestrians who were killed were inebriated [USDOT NHTSA 2016d]. Table 6-5 shows that over 12,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2015 in which a driver or fatally struck nonoccupant or both had a BAC of 0.08 or higher.7

Figure 6-8 displays who died in fatal crashes when the driver had a BAC of 0.08 or higher. Drivers accounted for over 6,400 (62.6 percent) of the fatalities; about 2,900 were either passengers in the vehicle with an impaired driver or occupants of other vehicles (28.3 percent), and more than 900 were pedestrians or other nonoccupants (9.1 percent). Some 29 percent of motorcycle operators in fatal crashes are alcohol-impaired, the highest share of any highway motor vehicle drivers.

As for recreational boating, alcohol use is perennially listed by the U.S. Coast Guard as the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. In 2014 the Coast Guard attributed 108 deaths, or 21 percent of boating fatalities and 248 injuries to alcohol [USDHS USCG 2015]. As of January 1, 2015, 47 states and the District of Columbia limit BAC to 0.08 percent for operators of recreational boats. The remaining four states, Michigan, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Wyoming, all have a 0.10 percent standard [USDHHS NIH NIAAA 2016].

A recent study by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) analyzed toxicology reports on about 6,700 pilots who died in crashes between 1990 and 2012 to attempt to establish baseline data. About 96 percent of the crashes were in general aviation because there were few commercial aviation crashes during that period. The toxicology information was available because the Federal Aviation Administration is able to conduct this testing in follow-up fatal crash investigations.

The NTSB examined illegal drugs (which were assumed to be impairing) and certain legally obtained over-the-counter (OTC) drugs that were considered potentially impairing. These legal pharmaceuticals were considered potentially impairing if the packaging contained a Food and Drug Administration label warning of possible effects from routine usage (e.g., cautions about driving or operating machinery, or possible side effects such as sedation, hallucinations, or behavior changes.) The toxicology results showed increased “use of all drugs, potentially impairing drugs, drugs used to treat potentially impairing conditions, drugs designated as controlled substances, and illicit drugs” during the 23-year period. Diphenhydramine, an antihistamine with sedating properties, was the most common drug found in the toxicology reports that was thought to be potentially impairing. Diphenhydramine is found in many over-the- counter allergy formulations, cold medications, and sleep aids. NTSB found few cases of illicit drug use, but noted that there was an increase in positive tests for marijuana usage during the last 10 years of the study (2002 to 2012).

NTSB examined whether pilots who had used potentially impairing drugs had increased risk of involvement in certain accident types. However, it found no statistically significant difference in the distribution of accident events from 2008 through 2012 in crashes involving pilots with and without evidence of potentially impairing drugs [NTSB 2014b].

In recent years, several states have legalized or are considering legalizing the use of marijuana. This trend has raised concerns about the effects of marijuana use on driver performance and traffic safety. The American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted several studies to quantify the prevalence of driving under the influence of marijuana. The AAA’s annual online sample survey on traffic safety culture reported that 4.6 percent of respondents reported that they drove within one hour of using marijuana. (The annual survey was conducted from 2013 to 2015 and included 6,612 respondents.) Male drivers, 18 to 24 years of age, and those who lived in the Midwest were most likely to report having driven within one hour of using marijuana. Moreover, drivers who reported using marijuana within one hour of driving were less likely to believe that using marijuana increased the risk of crashing and more likely to believe that such usage does not affect or decreases the risk of crashing [AAA 2016a].

Another AAA study focused on marijuana involvement in fatal crashes in Washington State from 2010 to 2014. Using toxicology test data from the Washington State Safety Commission, AAA found that the number of drivers in marijuana-involved fatal crashes more than doubled from 49 (8.3 percent) in 2013 to 106 (17.0 percent) in 2014. Prior to legalization in December 2012, the number and proportion of drivers testing positive for marijuana were fairly stable but then began to rise about 9 months after the law was passed [AAA 2016b].

Distraction and Fatigue

In 2015 about 2,972 fatal highway crashes and an estimated 265,000 injury crashes involved distracted drivers. This was about 10 percent of fatal crashes, 16 percent of injury crashes, and 14 percent of property-damage-only crashes involving a motor vehicle (table 6-6). Those 20 to 29 years of age accounted for the largest share (29 percent) of distracted driving crashes [USDOT NHTSA 2016f]. Figure 6-9 shows the trend on the percent of distracted driving- related highway fatalities and injuries (the fatality data begin with 2010 due to a change in methodology, making earlier data not comparable).

Although many activities (e.g., cellphone use, eating, sipping coffee, smoking, grooming, adjusting a radio) are distracting to drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, cell phone usage and texting have received the most attention as these devices have attained nearly universal usage in the last few years. Cellphones had been in use in about 13 percent of fatal crashes involving distracted driving in 2014, comprising about 1.3 percent of all fatal crashes [USDOT NHTSA 2016f]. Figure 6-10 shows that 14 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico prohibit drivers’ use of handheld cell phones; and 46 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico ban texting while driving.

In 20148 drowsy and fatigued driving was considered a related factor in 846 highway fatalities (2.6 percent). However, it is likely that fatigue-related crashes are underestimated [AAA Foundation]. Measuring the exact number of drowsing-related fatalities is difficult, although research is underway to improve methods. Drowsy-driving crashes often occur in rural areas, with the vehicle going off the road at high speed without braking and with no other vehicle occupant besides the driver [USDOT NHTSA 2016e]. About 57 percent of fatal crashes in rural areas involve a single-vehicle [IIHS].

Distracted or inattentive driving by commercial motor vehicle drivers was a contributing factor in 6.2 percent of fatal crashes involving large trucks in 2014 [USDOT FMCSA 2015a]. In addition, truck driver impairment (e.g. fatigue, drugs/alcohol, illness, etc.) was a factor in 3.9 percent of fatal crashes [USDOT FMCSA 2015a].

Distracted and fatigued vehicle operators are found in all modes of transportation, including airline pilots, bus drivers, train engineers, and tugboat operators [NTSB 2014c].

Lives Saved by Occupant Protection Equipment

When properly used, safety devices significantly reduce the risk of death or serious injury. NHTSA estimated that about 18,552 lives were saved on the highways in 2015—up from about 16,000 in 2000—by occupant protection devices, including seat belts, frontal air bags, child restraints, and motorcycle helmets, as shown in table 6-7. Seat belts saved 13,941 lives, frontal air bags about 2,600, child restraints about 266, and DOT- compliant motorcycle helmets nearly 1,772 lives in 2015 (table 6-7).

Another 3,544 lives might have been saved had these devices been used by all occupants—an estimated 2,800 more lives from universal seat belt use and about 740 more lives if all motorcycle riders wore DOT-compliant motorcycle helmets [USDOT NHTSA 2015d].

Seat Belt Use

About 90 percent of occupants of cars, vans, and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) used safety belts in 2015, up from 71 percent in 2000 and 85 percent in 2010. Pickup truck occupants had the lowest usage at 81 percent in 2015, up from 77 percent in 2014 (table 6-8).

Regionally, seat belt use is highest in the Western United States (about 95 percent) and lowest in the Midwestern states (82 percent). States with primary enforcement laws, allowing police to ticket vehicle occupants solely for not wearing seat belts, have higher belt usage (over 91 percent in 2015) than states with weaker enforcement (79 percent) [USDOT NHTSA 2016g].

Seat belt use is most effective in conjunction with air bags, which deploy automatically in crashes. Recalls to replace defective airbags and other occupant protection equipment sometimes are undertaken, most dramatically in the ongoing case of airbags (see Box 6-C).

Helmet Use

DOT-compliant motorcycle helmets reduce the risk of dying in a motorcycle crash and also reduce emergency medical care, hospitalization, intensive care, rehabilitation, and long-term care following crashes [NTSB 2010]. Overall usage of DOT-compliant helmets has declined from 71 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in 2014 (table 6-8). Only 19 states and the District of Columbia have a universal helmet law, 28 states have a partial law covering certain riders and passengers (e.g., those under the age of 18), and 3 states (Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire) have no motorcycle helmet law (figure 6-11). Helmet use seems partially correlated to state requirements. In 2014, 89 percent of riders wore DOT-compliant helmets in states that required helmet use, while 48 percent of riders wore DOT-compliant helmets in states that do not require their use [USDOT NHTSA 2014c]. In 1975, 47 states and the District of Columbia had adopted universal helmet use laws that required motorcycle helmets for all riders, but many states have subsequently made their helmet laws less restrictive [COSGROVE 2007].

Life Jackets and Boat Safety Training

Drowning accounted for 76 percent of all fatalities in recreational boating accidents in 2015. Of these, 85 percent of victims were not wearing a life jacket [USDHS USCG 2016]. As of January 2013, 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands had laws or regulations requiring children to wear life jackets [NTSB 2013].

Even if not legally required, operators of boats can insist that their passengers wear life jackets. Most states require mandatory recreational boating education and safety training courses, but eight states do not (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Maine, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming). Boater education helps reduce the risk of boating accidents and death [NTSB 2013], and about 42.6 percent of U.S. boat owners have taken a boating safety course. Only 23 percent of deaths in fatal boating accidents in 2014 occurred in boats operated by a person known to have received boating safety education [USDHS USCG 2015].

Traffic Safety Enforcement

Traffic safety enforcement promotes good driving habits (e.g., wearing a safety belt) and discourages unsafe behaviors (e.g., impaired driving) [USDOT NHTSA 2014b]. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2011 about 10.2 percent of the Nation’s 212.3 million drivers were stopped by police while operating a motor vehicle, 5.3 percent of drivers were ticketed, 3.4 percent were given a verbal or written warning, and 1.4 percent were allowed to proceed with no enforcement action taken [USDOJ BJS 2013].

Speeding was cited as the leading reason for a traffic stop, accounting for 46.5 percent, followed by vehicle defects (e.g., broken tail light) with 14.1 percent. Males were more likely to be stopped and ticketed than females, accounting for 58.8 percent of ticketed drivers. Drivers who were 25 to 34 years of age accounted for about 22.4 percent of stopped drivers, which is the highest percentage among all age groups [USDOJ BJS 2013]. However, this age group accounted for only 13.7 percent of VMT [USDOT FHWA NHTS 2011].

In 2014, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, law enforcement agencies across the country made an estimated 1.11 million arrests for driving under the influence. Males accounted for three out of four DUI arrests [USDOJ FBI 2014]. Studies have shown sobriety checkpoints are an effective countermeasure to reduce alcohol-impaired driving, reducing alcohol-related crashes by roughly 20 percent [USDHHS CDC NCI 2016].

Commercial Motor Vehicles

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is responsible for reducing crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving the Nation’s approximately 521,000 interstate freight carriers,9  13,000 interstate buses, and 16,000 interstate hazardous material carriers [USDOT FMCSA 2015b]. FMCSA issued over 20,500 warning letters in fiscal year 2014 to commercial motor carriers whose safety data showed a lack of compliance with motor carrier safety regulations and whose safety performance had fallen to an unacceptable level [USDOT FMCSA 2014]. Over 3.3 million roadside inspections were conducted in fiscal year 2015 (table 6-8). Vehicle violations put 20.3 percent of inspected vehicles out-of-service, while driver violations put 4.9 percent out-of-service, which commonly include hours-of-service noncompliance. As was discussed earlier, fatigue is a factor in many crashes. Box 6-D discusses shortages of public parking facilities for commercial motor vehicles. Such facilities would afford drivers with off-road places to stop to rest while not posing a safety hazard to others on the road.

Vehicle violations outnumbered driver violations 3 to 1, which commonly include defective lights, worn tires, or brake defects. Such violations must be corrected before the driver or vehicle can return to service.

Hazardous Materials Transportation

Transporting hazardous materials requires special precautions, handling, and packaging. Hazardous materials shipments by mode and hazard class are discussed in chapter 3. There are specialized safety regulations, standards, and reporting systems in place for pipelines, rail, highway, air, and marine vehicles that transport hazardous materials. These special requirements recognize that incidents involving the transportation of hazardous materials can affect the environment in addition to potentially risking injury and death. Table 6-10 shows that more than 16,500 hazardous materials incidents were reported in 2015, excluding pipeline.

About 1.7 percent of hazardous materials transportation incidents were the result of an accident (e.g., vehicular crash or train derailment). Almost 90 percent of incidents related to the movement of hazardous materials occurred on highways or in truck terminals. Most hazardous materials incidents occur because of human error or package failure, particularly during loading and unloading.

Table 6-11 provides a summary of the over 700 hazardous liquid-related and gas-related pipeline incidents reported in 2015, which resulted in 11 fatalities, 50 injuries, and more than $320 million in property damage (down from $1.5 billion in 2010, reflecting the incident specific nature of property damage). Hazardous liquids accounted for well over half the incidents and property damage. Gas distribution and transmission accounted for all but one of the fatalities and all of the injuries in 2015 (table 6-11).

A new challenge for freight transportation safety relates to accidents involving tanker trucks and trains carrying hazardous materials. Chapter 3 discusses the rapid growth in domestic transportation, some of which involves hazardous materials. According to the Commodity Flow Survey, liquid hazardous materials tonnage increased 15.6 percent between 2007 and 2012; part of the increase could be a result of increased CFS coverage [USDOT BTS 2015]. Some 58.7 percent of hazardous liquid tonnage was moved by truck and 2.1 percent by rail in 2012. As for flammable solids, rail moved 32.9 percent of the tonnage and trucks transported 59.7 percent. Liquid hazardous materials include gasoline, fuel oils, and ethanol, while flammable solids include metal powders, shavings, and cuttings; rubber scrap; and molten sulfur, among other spontaneous combustible materials.

There has been a dramatic increase in hazardous liquid train traffic, as discussed in chapter 3, and several derailments resulting in explosions and fireballs have occurred in this country, resulting in evacuations of several communities. In Canada, the rail catastrophe in Lac-Mégantic, Ottawa, resulted in 47 deaths in 2013. Oil spills from pipelines and railroad tanker cars are discussed in more detail in chapter 7.


American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAA):

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National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB):

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1 For further discussion of these different definitions, see chapter 6 of Transportation Statistics Annual Report 2015 box 6-B.

2 NHTSA noted that the 2014 rate was the lowest since the agency began collecting fatality data through the Fatality Analysis Reporting System in 1975.

3 A methodology change makes it inappropriate to com- pare motorcycle fatality rates per vehicle-mile traveled for 2006 and prior years with rates for 2007 and subse- quent years.

4 Counts of highway-grade crossing fatalities are made for both rail and highway modes. In table 6-1, to avoid double-counting, these fatalities are included in the overall count for highways, but not for rail.

5 Rail transit accounts for slightly more than half of the transit fatalities reported to FTA (table 6-2): however, commuter rail and Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) heavy rail system safety data are counted in Federal Railroad Administration data, not FTA.

6 In table 6-2, the number of transit passenger fatalities for or leaving the vehicle; 16.1 percent were people in transit stations or other facilities (not including employees). Pedestrians accounted for 29.7 percent of the transit fatalities. Other fatalities involved people in nontransit vehicles and transit workers (4.1 percent). About 25.4 includes both passengers on the vehicle and those struck while waiting to get on or who have just gotten off the ve- hicle. Pedestrians killed in transit accidents on highways, such as pedestrians struck by a transit bus, are reported as highway-related pedestrian deaths in table 6-2. To avoid double counting, pedestrians killed in transit accidents are included in table 6-2 under “Other counts, redundant with above” as “transit, rail” and “transit, nonrail.”

7 According to the USDOT National Highway Traf- fic Safety Administration, an alcohol-impaired crash involves at least one driver or motorcycle operator with a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of at least 0.08 gram per deciliter. Crashes where the BAC of the driver or operator measures over 0.01 are considered alcohol- related or alcohol-involved crashes.

8 2015 data are not available.

9 Most of these are independent truckers or small trucking firms.