Impact of Recessions

Motor-vehicle deaths and death rates compared against the backdrop of recession periods reveal several interesting trends.

Please note: This analysis relies on final mortality data published by the National Center for Health Statistics. The most recent final data reflects mortality in 2019. Because the current recession triggered by the pandemic did not start until 2020, COVID-19 related impacts are not reflected in this analysis. Preliminary monthly motor-vehicle fatality data is available on the Preliminary Monthly Estimates page.

During recession periods, the number of deaths and, to a lesser extent, the mileage-based death rate, tend to decline. The large drop in the number of deaths is partially a result of fewer people driving during lean economic times. The number of deaths tend to increase following the end of recessionary periods.

The latest 2016-2019 motor-vehicle data does indeed show a substantial increase in the number of fatalities compared to the 2008 recession and immediate post-recession levels.

In contrast, the mileage-based death rate does not typically increase substantially, but instead stabilizes or continues a slow, steady decline following recessions.

However, the 2008 recession did impact mileage-based death rates. From 2007 to 2010, mileage-based rates dropped from 1.45 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles to 1.19. From 2010 to 2016 the rate slowly increased to 1.27 (still far below pre-recession levels). Since 2016 rates have steadily decreased and are once again approaching post-recession lows, currently at 1.20. Looking at the trend over the last 60 years – even after accounting for recession periods – there is a slow but steady improvement in motor-vehicle safety when measured using mileage-based death rates.

A study conducted by He (2016) investigating the factors contributing to the decrease in motor-vehicle fatalities during the recent Great Recession found that for each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, motor-vehicle fatalities decrease by 2.82%. The decrease in fatalities during a recession is driven by a number of factors.

For each percentage increase in the unemployment rate:

  • Fatalities involving large trucks decrease 8.4%
  • Speeding-related fatalities decrease 5.0%
  • Drunk driving-related fatalities decrease 3.6%
  • Driving fatalities not involving alcohol decrease 2.5%
  • Multi-vehicle crash fatalities decrease 4.1%
  • Urban crash fatalities decrease 4.6%.
  • Chart
  • Data Table

Sources:

Death data from the National Center for Health Statistics, except 1964, which is a National Safety Council estimate based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Motor-vehicle rates are based on mileage estimates from the Federal Highway Administration. Recession periods are from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

He, M.M. (2016). Driving through the great recession: why does motor vehicle fatality decrease when the economy slows down? Social Science & Medicine, 155, 1-11.