Surge in traffic deaths outpaces increase in travel
WASHINGTON (AP) — Traffic deaths surged about 8 percent in the first nine months of last year, continuing an alarming upward spiral that might be partially explained by more Americans on the roads because of 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 with 25,808 deaths in the same period in 2015.
Experts think 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 happened at a time when cars are safer than ever.
But there also are 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 might be leading to more stoned drivers behind the wheel and more crashes.
Weather also is a consideration, NHTSA officials said.
Research shows 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 might be a factor.