WASHINGTON -- U.S. traffic deaths fell in 2019 for the third straight year even as overall road use increased, according to preliminary government data released Tuesday.
NHTSA reported an estimated 36,120 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year, down 1.2 percent from 36,560 in 2018, even as travel rose 0.9 percent to 3.23 trillion miles.
The fatality rate was 1.10 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from 1.13 in 2018. Last year was tied for the second lowest annual fatality rate in U.S. history.
"We've continued focusing on the behaviors that we all know are unsafe: failing to wear a seat belt, speeding, driving while impaired, driving while distracted," Acting NHTSA Administrator James Owens said in an interview.
As recently as 2007, 41,259 people died on U.S. roads and the fatality rate was 1.36 per 100 million vehicle miles, and 51,091 people died in 1980 when the fatality rate was three times higher than the current rate.
NHTSA has been grappling with a recent spike in pedestrian deaths that some attribute to more distraction and use of electronic devices. In 2018, the number of pedestrians killed rose to its highest level since 1990 climbing 3.4 percent to 6,283.
Early data suggests in 2019 pedestrian deaths fell 2 percent and bicyclist deaths dropped 3 percent.
John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said the industry group is encouraged by the continued drop in traffic fatalities.
“This trend, in part, reflects the commitments our members have to safer, smarter and cleaner transportation,” he said in a statement.
Bozzella said driver-assist systems featuring automatic emergency braking and lane-centering technologies have the potential to “dramatically improve vehicle and pedestrian safety,” but more still needs to be done.
The Alliance is trying to preserve a spectrum band long assigned to automakers for vehicle safety. The FCC has proposed shifting 45 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band to unlicensed uses such as Wi-Fi.
“We need policies that support these innovations as well as expanded vehicle automation that can help reduce over 90 percent of crashes that are attributed to driver error,” he said. “The FCC should preserve the 5.9 GHz spectrum for auto safety, and we are working with Congress with the goal of enacting a comprehensive automated vehicle policy framework. Together, we can make the roads safer for all Americans.”
When commuters return
U.S. traffic safety officials are concerned about what happens when tens of millions of commuters return to work after spending an extended period at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ownens noted some data suggests there has been significant additional speeding on emptier U.S. roads in recent weeks.
NHTSA opted to delay some spending on public awareness campaigns and high-visibility traffic enforcement because of the steep reduction in driving.
"We're going to be ramping up our campaign efforts on raising public awareness over the next couple of weeks and months," Owens said, saying it would focus on states where the stay-at-home orders are being lifted first.
Owens said the agency is gearing up to remind motorists to drive safely. "When you get back on the road -- now is the time to remember all the safe driving practices that you had," Owens said.
Governors Highway Safety Association Executive Director Jonathan Adkins said Tuesday that "as states begin to reopen businesses and drivers resume their normal patterns, pent up demand could lead to an increase in crashes."
Audrey LaForest of Automotive News contributed to this report.