Significant disparities exist in the U.S. traffic fatality rate per capita based on race and ethnicity, according to new federal research. The solution may lie in a safe system approach to traffic regulation, rather than a punitive approach, said officials April 6 at the World Traffic Safety Symposium in New York.
The disparity came to light in 2022 research that was the first federal examination of traffic safety in the context of race and ethnicity, said Rajesh Subramanian, director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Traffic Records and Analysis, at the event.
In 2018, Subramanian said, 11.28 Americans per 100,000 died in traffic accidents — both in-vehicle and as pedestrians. For American Indian or Alaska Native people, the rate was 24.75; for Black or African American people, the rate was 13.47, slightly higher than the 13.31 rate for the Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander population. For White people, the rate was 10.92, slightly below the average. The fatality rate for Hispanic or Latino people was 9.44; for Asian people, it was just 3.00.
Native American, Black and Native Hawaiian populations in the US have higher per-capita traffic fatality rates
The disparity was especially pronounced for pedestrians, Subramanian said. In 2018, the pedestrian fatality rate for American Indian or Alaska Native people was 3.42 times the rate for White people; for Black people, it was 1.97 times the rate for White people. Asian pedestrians died at slightly more than half the rate of White pedestrians.
Hispanic, Native American, Black and Native Hawaiian populations in the US have higher per-capita pedestrian fatality rates
Ivan Cheung, senior advisor at the National Transportation Safety Board, presented a 2021 report from the Governors Highway Safety Association that showed much the same thing. He noted that after a drop in crash deaths from 2007 to 2015, reaching a low of 32,479 in 2011, fatalities have been generally trending up; in 2021, 42,915 people died in vehicle crashes. Among 28 high-income nations, the United States was one of only five with no decrease in traffic deaths between 2015 and 2019.
The same race and ethnicity trends in the NHTSA report were apparent in the GHSA report. Between 2015 and 2019, Cheung said, the American Indian or Alaska Native population had a per capita traffic fatality rate of 30.7 per 100,000 population, twice the 15.0 rate for the Black or African American population, nearly four times the 7.2 rate for White people and nearly seven times the 4.6 rate for Asian people.
Digging into the data
The question of why the disparity exists remains unresolved. Allison Curry, the director of epidemiology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Research and Prevention, presented a big-data pilot program for the state of New Jersey that attempts to start finding an answer.
Curry’s program is assembling not just crash and injury data, but data from 10 sets of public and private records, including drivers licenses, traffic citations, birth and death records, EMS reports and hospital discharge records, to look for associations that may shed a light on reasons for unequal traffic deaths. The data warehouse further attempts to derive ethnicity from the data by analyzing surnames and residential addresses.
Curry said she hopes the size and scope of the data will allow associations that can identify driving behaviors among various communities so they can be addressed.
A safe system approach
The solution to the traffic fatality problem lies in a “safe system approach” to traffic safety, said Shannon Hughes, a deputy regional administrator at NHTSA. She cited the Department of Transportation's National Roadway Safety Strategy of working toward a goal of zero roadway fatalities.
“Just like you expect your food to be safe, so too should you expect your transportation network, your road to be safe, no matter who you are, what age or income level or ability, what color you are,” Hughes said.
DOT’s safe system approach calls not just for safer drivers and pedestrians, but for safer road and vehicle design, reduced speeds and better post-crash care.
“We can't just place the blame on the individual,” Hughes said. You have to also think about who is at the level of making decisions about how our roadways are designed. And some of those integral functions are planning, infrastructure design and how it can impact behavior.”
The bipartisan infrastructure law, Hughes said, also requires that public input and engagement be part of state highway safety programs. That engagement requires gathering local input for programs and taking shared action and decision-making, she added.
“It's not handing out flyers. It's not erecting a website. It's a process … that's going to require relationship-building and building trust,” Hughes said.