Surge in traf­fic deaths out­paces in­crease in travel

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OBITUARIES - By Joan Lowy

Traff i c deaths surged about 8 per­cent in the first nine months of last year, con­tin­u­ing an alarm­ing up­ward spi­ral that may be par­tially ex­plained by more Amer­i­cans on the roads due to the eco­nomic re­cov­ery, ac­cord­ing to Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion es­ti­mates re­leased Fri­day.

The sharp in­crease comes as driv­ers are putting more miles on the road than ever, the govern­ment said. But the rise in deaths is out­pac­ing the in­crease in travel. Ve­hi­cle miles trav­eled in the first nine months of 2016 rose about 3 per­cent.

There were 27,875 deaths in the first three quar­ters of last year, com­pared to 25,808 deaths in the same pe­riod in 2015.

Ex­perts be­lieve the in­creased travel is mostly a re­sult of an im­proved econ­omy and low gas prices. But NHTSA’s data ex­perts said in­creased travel and a bet­ter econ­omy alone can’t ex­plain the rise in deaths.

“We still have to fig­ure out what is un­der­ly­ing those lives lost,” NHTSA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Mark Rosekind said. “If it was sim­ple, we would al­ready know that.”

The in­crease in deaths is es­pe­cially con­cern­ing be­cause it has hap­pened at time when cars are safer than ever. Nearly all new cars and light trucks now have elec­tronic sta­bil­ity con­trol and rearview cam­eras, for ex­am­ple. Au­tomak­ers are also be­gin­ning to equip more cars with so­phis­ti­cated safety tech­nol­ogy like adap­tive cruise con­trol, au­to­matic emer­gency-brak­ing and blind-spot mon­i­tor­ing.

But there are also trends that are dif­fi­cult to mea­sure, such as in­creased use of cell­phones and other mo­bile de­vices be­hind the wheel. And re­searchers are try­ing to tease out whether le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana for recre­ational or med­i­cal use in some states may be lead­ing to more stoned driv­ers be­hind the wheel and more crashes. It’s not an easy ques­tion to an­swer, since driv­ers high on mar­i­juana re­act dif­fer­ently than drunk driv­ers, and there haven’t been ef­fec­tive road­side tests for po­lice to de­ter­mine if a driver is high.

Weather is also a con­sid­er­a­tion, NHTSA of­fi­cials said. Re­search shows that traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties go up in warmer weather months when day­light hours are longer and peo­ple do more driv­ing. Warmer than nor­mal win­ters in some areas of the coun­try may be a fac­tor.

In the early to mid-2000s, an­nual traf­fic deaths reg­u­larly to­taled over 40,000 a year. They started drop­ping sharply in 2008 dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion, reach­ing their low­est level in more than five decades — 32,744 deaths — in 2014. But in the fourth quar­ter of 2014, fa­tal­i­ties started soar­ing back. In 2015, fa­tal­i­ties rose 7.2 per­cent to 35,092 deaths.

NHTSA found some sig­nif­i­cant regional dif­fer­ences in the re­cent fa­tal­ity in­creases. In the six-state New Eng­land re­gion, for ex­am­ple, fa­tal­i­ties in­creased an es­ti­mated 20 per­cent in the first nine months of 2016. But in a six-state re­gion that in­cludes North Dakota, South Dakota, Wy­oming, Colorado, Utah and Ne­vada, the in­crease was only 1 per­cent.

SETH WENIG, FILE — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Dec. 27photo, emer­gency per­son­nel work at the scene of a fa­tal multi-ve­hi­cle crash on the east­bound side of the Bronx Ex­press­way in the Bronx sec­tion of New York. The govern­ment says traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties surged about 8 per­cent in the first nine months of last year, con­tin­u­ing an alarm­ing up­ward spi­ral that be­gan in late 2014.

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