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Who’s Dying on California’s Roads?

From 2001 until 2012, the years for which we have full SWITRS data, deaths on California’s roadways have gone from 3,926 to 2,995, a decline of about twenty-four percent. This is the good news. In 2013, a year for which full data isn’t yet delivered, deaths are already running higher than the previous year, at 3,102. The last four years have actually brought much of the same, with gradual year-over-year increases. Before that, deaths had been falling sharply, from 2007 to 2010, perhaps because high fuel prices and the “Great Recession” kept drivers off the roads.

These overall road safety gains have mostly accrued to drivers of motor vehicles, and specifically to drivers of cars and pickups. Vulnerable road users have seen few safety gains at all. Deaths among motorcyclists have risen an astonishing fifty-two percent (295 to 449), and cycling deaths by twenty-six percent (116 to 147). Pedestrian deaths look flat, down by nearly three percent (721 to 701) for the same period, but 2013 is going to be bad for them, according to the preliminary numbers I’ve seen, with 752 total deaths already reported, erasing all gains.

The stats above suffer from one big problem: they don’t have a base rate, they don’t show us per-capita changes. If motorcycle riding increased by fifty-two percent over the years from 2001 to 2012, then the increase in deaths might explainable. I haven’t spent time (on this lazy Sunday) locating base rates, if it’s even possible. But there is one easy way to use this raw data as is to show how savagely vulnerable users have suffered. We can look at the proportion of deaths each category of road user represents, per year, and look at the changes year-over-year.

Here are the proportion of deaths for all major road user categories for the years 2001-2012:

Year Car & Pickup Occupants Motorcyclists Cyclists Pedestrians Others
2001 68.9% 7.5% 3.0% 18.4% 2.2%
2002 68.5% 7.8% 2.1% 10.5% 11.1%
2003 67.7% 8.7% 2.6% 15.0% 6.1%
2004 61.4% 8.5% 3.0% 16.5% 10.6%
2005 61.1% 9.4% 3.0% 17.1% 9.4%
2006 59.3% 10.3% 3.7% 17.3% 9.4%
2007 60.5% 11.7% 3.1% 16.7% 7.9%
2008 56.7% 15.6% 3.7% 18.4% 5.7%
2009 60.5% 12.4% 3.4% 19.3% 4.4%
2010 58.3% 12.7% 4.0% 22.7% 2.2%
2011 55.0% 14.7% 4.9% 23.1% 2.3%
2012 54.9% 15.0% 4.9% 23.4% 1.8%

The motorcyclist death-rate proportion increase is horrible, one-hundred percent (7.5 to 15), but every other vulnerable road user has also seen huge changes. Cyclists proportion of deaths has increased by sixty-three percent, and the proportion of pedestrians dying has increased by twenty-seven percent. Motorists, by contrast, are the sole road users showing a decrease, about twenty percent overall.

I haven’t done the hard work necessary to explain these numbers, but I’d guess car manufacturers are responsible for most of it. That is, fewer people are dying in cars because cars have gotten safer, while vulnerable users have seen no safety improvements. These users need changes in infrastructure and the laws for their safety, and we — our society and government — have done little with our roads or legislation. We haven’t lowered speed limits, improved pavements, bettered sidewalks or bicycle paths or crosswalks, tightened drunk driving standards, or enforced mobile phone restrictions. We’ve done hardly anything. The stats show up the problems: road users who have no access to better automobile technology are dying in ever greater proportions.

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Categories: Planning, Policy, Safety
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