Impact of Recessions

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

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 2016-2018 motor-vehicle data does indeed show a substantial increase in the number of fatalities compared to 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 most recent 2018 data show a 2.5% increase in the mileage death rate from a 2010 post-recession low. Although the 2018 death rate did drop from 2017, at 1.22, it is still substantially higher than the 1.19 in 2010. Comparing pre-recession death rates to current rates shows a 16% decrease, from 1.45 in 2007. 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


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.