Speed-Related Deaths Have Declined by 43% Since 1986 – Despite Higher Highway Speed Limits And More Miles Driven

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Speed-related deaths are at historical lows in America. Here’s how the trend looks over time. 


Historically, there have been two major police-reported causes of motor vehicle-related deaths; alcohol and speed. BestRide took a look back to see how speed-related deaths in America have trended. What we found is a steady decline begining in the 1980s when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) first began recording the causes of fatal motor vehicle incidents.

We started our research on speed-related deaths in America by communicating with Derrell Lyles in the Public Affairs office for NHTSA. Mr. Lyles told us, “According to our stats division the data definition for a speeding-related crash did not exist prior to 1982.” Starting with that point in time, NHTSA has kept track of the number of speed-related deaths per year and the percentage of overall deaths related to automobiles that speed represents. NHTSA tracks the data in two ways. First, fatal incidents. Second, the total number of fatalities, which is a higher number since more than one person may be killed per incident. We will focus on total fatalities. In 1982 15,341 people were killed in accidents police primarily attributed to speed. The highest number recorded was in 1986, a year in which 16,937 people died in events police attributed to speed.  In the last year of available data, 2017, that number had dropped to 9,717. That is a 43 percent decline.

By 1992 the number of total speed-related fatalities had declined to 12,655. By 2007, speed-related deaths were still at about this level with 13,140 deaths recorded which was about 32% of the total number of people killed in auto-related incidents. By 2009, the number dropped to 10,664. You may remember that the U.S. economy was at a particularly bad point then. Driving overall was reduced temporarily during the recession, but even as a percentage of deaths, speeding continued to decline and was then at 31% of overall deaths. By 2011, the number had again declined to 10,001. Since that point, speed-related deaths stayed close to that number, but have dropped below 10,000 deaths in four of the past five years. The all-time low is 9,283 in 2014 (28% of deaths). However, the lowest percentage was recorded in 2017 at 26% of overall deaths. None of this takes into account how many miles were traveled in those years.

During this span of years, two things happened which make the speed-related drop in deaths much more meaningful. First, the total number of vehicle miles driven has risen considerably. In 1982 there were about 1.6 trillion vehicle miles traveled in America. By 2017 that had doubled to 3.2 trillion. Second, many states increased their highway speed limits from 55 MPH to as high as 80 MPH. Yet, even with more overall miles being driven and with higher maximum speed limits, speeding deaths continue to drop. Our graph shows just how steep the drop is when the metric used is speeding deaths per mile driven.

Without fail, when a state opts to raise highway speed limits the reported news is that the move will cause “More Deaths.” Yet, the trend over four decades shows that speed-related deaths are still declining. One reason for this is that speed-related deaths are not just highway deaths. In fact, according to recent NHTSA data, less than half of all fatalities occur on roads with a speed limit of 55 mph or higher. More speed-related deaths occur on roads that are not highways.

Since data has been collected, speed-related deaths have declined in absolute numbers, as a percentage of overall automotive-related crash deaths, and despite more miles traveled and higher speed limits. Among the many improvements in roadway safety, speed-related death reduction is one of the largest improvements overall.


View the latest fatality facts at the IIHS website here:  The chart below was provided to BestRide directly by NHTSA at our request:

Featured image courtesy of IIHS. Convertible image courtesy of Jaguar.

John Goreham

John Goreham

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