With traffic fatalities up 9 percent in the first half of 2012 over the same period in 2011, some researchers have linked any previous decreases in fatalities to economic downturns. A University of Michigan researcher claims that the recent increase could continue as the economy recovers. In his report “Road Safety in the United States: Are the (Relatively) Good Times Over?,” Michael Sivak claims that the 26 percent reduction in roadway fatalities between 2005 and 2011 can be attributed in large part to a decrease in discretionary driving, changes in driving patterns and reduced freight shipments.

Among other matters, Sivak cautions policy makers to “[b]e very cautious in assuming that any sudden, large drop in fatalities is in response to interventions related to vehicle design. The main reason for this is that it takes about 20 years to turn over the fleet. Do not expect most regulatory actions aimed at drivers to produce a sudden, huge drop in fatalities. Be aware that most rapid, underlying changes are transient, and therefore their effects are mostly transient too.” His findings agree with data analyzed by the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, showing a clearcorrelation between U.S. recessions since 1971 with reduced motor vehicle fatalities.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) compiled the data on which these studies rely, but it was more cautious in attributing the trends to any particular contributing factors. According to a spokesperson for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, NHTSA’s most recent traffic fatalities report is based on preliminary data, and the apparent 9 percent increase in fatalities may not hold up nor may it presage results for the remainder of the year. See Bloomberg BNA Product Safety & Liability Reporter, October 5, 2012.