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U.S. roadways are a little safer than last year, but that's not saying very much

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

In 2023, U.S. roadways got a little bit safer than they were last year, but that's not saying much. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports bad habits from the pandemic and vehicle designs are driving up traffic fatalities, especially for pedestrians.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Nolan Davidson, a 9-year-old kid, was with his dad driving to a basketball game in suburban Kansas City when a guy in a speeding pickup smashed into the side of their car where Nolan was sitting.

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MORRIS: A few days later, Aaron Davidson was in church eulogizing his son.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome, everyone.

AARON DAVIDSON: He was my definition of love. (Crying) A part of me is missing. A part of our family is missing. We will cherish our memories of Nolan forever.

MORRIS: This kind of sudden death and grief is coming a lot faster now than it did just a few years back.

RUSS MARTIN: People are being killed on our roadways. It's friends, it's families, it's neighbors, it's coworkers. It happens every day. About 100 people are being killed every day somewhere in the United States.

MORRIS: Russ Martin with the Governors Highway Safety Association says it's like a plane crash every single day of the year. Wrecks killed almost 42,800 Americans in 2022. Traffic fatalities had been generally trending down for decades until the pandemic, when they shot up to a 16-year high. Kansas City Police Sergeant Jonathan Rivers says risky behavior took hold.

JONATHAN RIVERS: The main causes that we're seeing is speed - excessive speeds, impairment and no seatbelts.

MORRIS: Speeders tend to be going faster than before, drinkers drunker, there's more marijuana and drug use, of course, people are looking at their phones. But while distracted, lawless driving is up, law enforcement is down. In Kansas City, the police department's traffic enforcement division has shrunk to less than half the size it was just four years ago.

RIVERS: And people feel that they can drive any way they want to since they don't see officers on the highway as much as they used to.

MORRIS: The police staffing shortage is nationwide and it can cut especially deep in divisions like traffic control that don't handle many emergency calls. There is some good news about traffic fatalities, though.

MARK CHUNG: At a national level, they're slightly down.

MORRIS: Mark Chung with the National Safety Council says overall, traffic fatality rates have been easing, dropping around 3% toward possibly around 40,000 deaths in 2023. Americans are driving more now, too, so it's a big improvement but still a lot worse than it was before the pandemic. Chung says there's a huge gap.

CHUNG: The delta between that and pre-pandemic 2019 levels is around 6,000 or maybe even 7,000 lives.

MORRIS: So your chances of dying in a car are off slightly from the worst days of the pandemic, but walking across the street like Troost Avenue here in Kansas City is as dangerous as it's been in 40 years.

MARTIN: In the past couple of years, we've been in the midst of a pedestrian safety crisis. Pedestrians being struck and killed on roadways.

MORRIS: Russ Martin of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says pedestrian fatalities spiked up almost 80% in a decade, leading to more than 7,500 deaths last year. Mark Chung says the evolution of car design is partly to blame.

CHUNG: Cars are safer for occupants, they have not been for non-occupants, and in fact, over the last 20 years, have been more dangerous for non-occupants.

MORRIS: Much more dangerous. Those newer, tall, imposing, blunt-faced pickups and SUVs are particularly deadly, so the factors driving up traffic fatalities are well known. Pushing them down again is a complex problem, but it can't happen fast enough for people like Sergeant Rivers.

RIVERS: It's destroying our communities. We see young lives snuffed out. We have to have a stop.

MORRIS: Traffic experts insist this is possible by improving road and vehicle designs, emergency response, policing, by somehow convincing 230 million American drivers to be careful. The National Safety Council has staked out a goal of running traffic fatalities all the way down to zero by 2050, but just making U.S. roadways as safe as they were a few years ago is the first big step. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.