Automobile-related deaths up in Philly, crashes up region wide

Across most of Southeastern Pennsylvania, car crashes and the injuries that resulted were up in 2016.

That’s according to data released by PennDot on Monday that offers an extensive snapshot of crashes in the previous year. When compared over a five year period, Philadelphia has shown the largest increase of crashes among the five counties in the southeast corner of the state, with 12,189 crashes in 2016 — about 11 percent from more than five years earlier. Overall, a review of five years of data shows a trend that’s mirrored in neighboring counties, and throughout the state. Traffic crashes declined until 2014, and since then the numbers have been going back up. Pennsylvania reported 129,395 crashes in 2016, nearly 4,000 more than in 2011, and the most in the state since 2007.

An Increase in Local Automobile Crashes

The number of automobile crashes has been trending higher since 2014 in Philadelphia and its suburban Pennsylvania counties, reversing a few years of improvement. The chart shows the percentage change in local crashes since 2011.
Staff Graphic

The reason for the trend, officials said, is that there are more drivers on the road. The populations of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties have grown since 2011, but what’s really driven road traffic up is the improved economy.

“Because the economy is better, people are traveling around more,” said Mike Carroll, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director for the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems.

Perhaps more specifically, gas prices plummeted. The decline of gas prices coincides precisely with the trend of increasing car crashes in the region.

As Gas Prices Fell, Crashes Rose

The number of crashes in Philadelphia and its four suburban counties rose sharply just as gasoline prices took a steep drop.
Percentage changes since 2011.
Staff Graphic

 The PennDot data, gathered from police departments across the state on traffic cases where officers were called, showed an increase in crashes in all five counties but Chester in 2016.

 All five counties reported increases in injuries in 2016. In the five counties, 993 people were seriously hurt in crashes.

 Fatalities in the region fit a less clear pattern. They were up in Philadelphia and Delaware, where 100 and 29 people, respectively, died, but down in Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery. Overall, 236 people lost their lives in car crashes last year. Statewide, fatalities were down. There were 1,188 deaths on Pennsylvania roads, seven fewer than in 2015 and the lowest since the state began collecting data in 1928.

Experts noted that the big picture matters. Although  the more recent trend shows upticks in road crashes and injuries, data going back to 1997 show that the state’s roads are safer than they once were.

So what to do with all this info? In Philadelphia, it will be part of the planning for Vision Zero, the city’s initiative to reduce traffic deaths and injuries through education, planning and design, and enforcement. The city is going to hold community meetings about how street changes might make the city safer, and will be putting out a final draft of a Vision Zero report in September.

With car crashes tied in part to an increase in driving, which is in turn tied to trends in the economy, Carroll still believes the city can make changes that will bring the number back down.

“If you went back 20 years or 30 years, we were higher in terms of fatalities and injuries but certainly quite significantly higher,” he said. “We’ve been very strong in making people wear seat belts, improved design, greater awareness of drunk driving, adhering to the speed limit.”

Outside the city, the PennDot data are a key tool to making decisions on road and bridge projects, and in grant applications for federal money to help with street improvements, said Matthew Edmond, the transportation section chief for the Montgomery County Planning Commission. He said the data are useful, but are just the beginning of understanding traffic issues because they don't account for the size or traffic volumes of the roads. It also is challenging to compare one road to another, as there is so much variety among the throughways of his county, from rural roads to high density areas such as King of Prussia.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” Edmond said.

With the caveat that the PennDot data offer only a snapshot, and a fluke or outlier year can skew information, here are the five locations per county with the highest number of crashes.