Traffic Safety Trends | State Legislative Action 2016

Anne Teigen, Amanda Essex and Douglas Shinkle 4/30/2017


Drive Safely highway sign.In 2015, 35,092 people died in crashes on U.S. roadways, a 7.2 percent increase from the 32,744 fatalities in 2014. This is the largest percentage increase in nearly 50 years.

Fatalities increased from 2014 to 2015 in almost all segments of the population—passenger vehicle occupants, passengers of large trucks, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, as well as alcohol-impaired driving fatalities. In fact, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), passenger car and light-truck occupant fatalities are at their highest since 2009, pedestrian fatalities are at their highest number since 1996 and bicyclist deaths are at their highest since 1995.

According to the 2015 Traffic Safety Culture Index by AAA, nearly everyone in America is affected by traffic crashes. One in five drivers has been involved in a crash serious enough to require the hospitalization of someone at some point in their lives and one in nine persons has been seriously injured in a crash. Nearly one in three Americans has had a friend or relative seriously injured or killed in a crash.

Traffic safety is a costly, personal, and important public health issue for states and state legislators. In 2016, state legislators debated more than 1,900 traffic safety bills. This report examines 2016 traffic safety legislation regarding occupant protection, impaired driving, drugged driving, distracted driving, driver licensing, teen drivers, older drivers, speeding and speed limits, automated enforcement, motorcycle safety, school bus safety, pedestrian and bicycle safety and slow and medium speed vehicles. Tables and charts detailing state traffic safety laws are included, as are contacts and links for further information.

All bills discussed in this report can be found in the NCSL - NHTSA Traffic Safety Legislative Tracking Database

Report Summary

Federal Update

Photo of interstate highways.Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2015. The FAST Act is a five-year bill that provides authority and funding for federal surface transportation programs. The bill approved $305 billion in funding for surface transportation programs through 2020. The FAST Act includes highway safety provisions in Title IV, which provides grants to states to advance a number of traffic safety-related programs if they adopt, or have adopted, certain provisions.

Occupant Protection 

Seat belt graphic.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death among those ages 1 to 54 in the United States. Of the 22,441 occupants of passenger vehicles killed on America’s roads in 2015, 48 percent were not wearing a seat belt. Every state except New Hampshire has an adult safety belt law. During the 2016 state legislative session, 23 states considered bills related to seat belts. Sixteen states debated child passenger protection legislation, and one state, Pennsylvania, enacted a law. The report also looks at smoking in cars with children and children in unattended vehicles.

Impaired Driving  

Photo showing a cocktail with car keys.In 2015, 10,265 people were killed in alcohol-impaired traffic crashes, accounting for 29 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities. Impaired driving continues to be a serious traffic safety and public health issue for states (see Table 1). According to NHTSA, one alcohol impaired-driving fatality occurred every 51 minutes in 2015. The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes is more than $44 billion. In 2016, lawmakers in 42 states introduced approximately 380 bills related to impaired driving. Lawmakers considered legislation addressing high BAC, ignition interlock requirements, ignition interlock compliance laws, implied consent, blood alcohol testing, test refusals, enhanced criminal penalties for repeat offenders, treatment programs and 24/7 sobriety monitoring programs. During the 2016 legislative session, 32 states enacted laws related to impaired driving.

Drugged Driving 

Photo of pills and pill bottlesIn addition to alcohol-impaired driving, drugged driving is implicated in an increasing number of crashes and fatalities. In 2015, drugs were present in 42 percent of the fatally-injured drivers with a known test result. But it is extremely difficult to use crash data to quantify how widespread the drugged driving problem is because many states do not test for the presence of drugs, do not test for the same drugs or do not test to the same cutoff levels. States have taken various approaches to address drugged driving, with a handful of states passing legislation in 2016.

Distracted Driving 

Photo showing texting while driving.NHTSA defines distraction as a specific type of inattention from the driving task to focus on some other activity. Distracting tasks can affect drivers in different ways and can be grouped into three categories: visually distracting, manually distracting and cognitively distracting. All these types of distractions can increase crash risk. NHTSA reports 3,477 people were killed in crashes involving distracted driving in 2015, an 8.8 percent increase from 2014. In 2016, legislators in 38 states considered nearly 175 driver-distraction bills. States debated hands-free laws, modified penalties and bans on texting while driving.

Driver Licensing

Drivers license, license plates and car keys.The states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories license more than 211 million drivers, representing roughly 88 percent of those eligible to drive. Each year, state legislatures debate hundreds of bills related to various aspects of driver's licensing, including REAL ID, unlicensed driving, immigrant driver’s licenses military designations, and most recently digital driver’s licenses.

Teen Drivers 

Photo showing a teen driver.Young, inexperienced drivers are significantly overrepresented in fatal crashes, according to NHTSA. In 2015, 1,847 teen drivers between the ages of 16 and 20 were killed in car crashes. To mitigate this public health issue, every state has enacted some type of law intended to protect these drivers as they develop skill and experience. Commonly referred to as graduated driver’s licensing (GDL), the laws provide a gradual process for teen drivers to gain experience in a safer environment. A number of states considered legislation addressing GDL, though very few new laws were enacted. States also passed legislation addressing driver’s education, school enrollment requirements, and distracted and impaired driving among young drivers.

Older Drivers

Seniors  biking.In 2015, according to NHTSA, 6,165 people 65 and older were killed in traffic crashes and an estimated 240,000 were injured. Older drivers generally are considered to be safer drivers because they use seat belts, rarely speed and are less likely than other age groups to drive while impaired. On the other hand, AAA notes that age-related decline in vision, hearing and cognitive functioning, along with physical changes, may affect driving ability. Six states considered legislation on older driver issues in 2016.

Speeding and Speed Limits

Slow sign painted on the highway.In 2015, 9,557 traffic fatalities occurred in speeding-related crashes. NHTSA considers a crash to be speeding-related if the driver was charged with a speeding-related offense or if an officer indicated that racing, driving too fast for conditions or exceeding the posted speed limit was a contributing factor in the crash. In 2016, 32 states considered over 100 bills related to speed limits. A handful of states passed legislation increasing speed limits, while other states enabled speed limits to be reduced in certain instances. A few states enacted laws establishing school speed zones and increasing penalties for speeding in a work zone.

Automated Enforcement

traffic light.Running a red light is a dangerous yet common violation made by drivers. According to IIHS, in 2014, red-light running caused 171,000 traffic crashes nationwide, which led to approximately 126,000 injuries and 709 deaths. Data shows that more than 50 percent of the fatalities were bicyclists, pedestrians and occupants in the vehicle that did not run the red light. Red light cameras and photo radar allow local law enforcement agencies to enforce traffic laws remotely. Twenty-four states considered 99 bills related to red light and speed cameras in 2016.

Motorcycle Safety

Motorcycle rider wearing a helmet.There was a large increase in motorcyclist fatalities in 2015, from 4,594 in 2014 to 4,976 in 2015, an increase of 8.3 percent. This increase was higher than the overall fatality percentage increase of 7.2 percent in 2015. The overall proportion of total fatalities that were motorcyclists has increased from 11 percent in 2006 to 14 percent in 2015. 2016 was a relatively quiet year for motorcycle safety legislation. While a number of states considered bills regarding motorcycle helmet requirements, there were no enacted bills in that category in 2016. State legislatures did continue to enact laws making changes to their motorcycle licensing, education, operation and equipment standards and requirements.

School Bus Safety

Kids walking from school bus.According to NHTSA, students are 50 times more likely to arrive at school alive when they take the bus, rather than when they drive themselves or ride with friends. According to data from 2001-2009, 58 percent of student fatalities during normal school travel hours occurred when traveling with a teen driver and 23 percent occurred when traveling with an adult driver. Only one percent of those fatalities occurred when traveling by school bus. A number of states looked at taking action to increase the safety of passengers on school buses. The most activity occurred in the areas of illegal passing of school buses, including the use of cameras to catch violators, and in debating whether to require seat belts on school buses.

Pedestrian and Bicyclist Safety

Man riding a bicycle.Pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities both increased significantly in 2015 according to the most recent data from NHTSA, and had the most deaths for both groups in a year since the mid-1990’s. Pedestrian deaths increased significantly in 2015, from 4,910 in 2014 to 5,376 in 2015, a percentage increase of 9.5 percent. There was a large increase in bicyclist deaths in 2015, from 729 in 2014 to 818 in 2015, an increase of 12.2 percent. State legislatures continued to take varied approaches to increase bicycling and walking safety in 2016. These new laws included: enacting safe bicycle passing, operation and equipment laws; enhancing penalties for crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians; enacting safety and equipment standards for electric bicycles and supporting bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Slow and Medium Speed Vehicles

slow moving vehicle - snow plow driver.In 2016, at least 17 states considered legislation related to slow and medium-speed vehicles, with 12 bills enacted in 11 states. Five bills were passed addressing golf carts. Two states enacted two bills addressing mopeds.


Other Topics of Interest

Other topics addressed in the report include drowsy driving, aggressive driving, autocycles and electric bicycles.