Traffic deaths spiked in the first six months of this year – up 14 percent nationally – and injuries were up by a third, according to the National Safety Council, but the reasons seem to elude experts who hesitate to blame cellphone calls and text messages.
An improved economy and low gas prices have encouraged Americans to put a record number of miles on the road, said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president of the council. But, she said, that's not the whole explanation for the increase in deaths and injuries, reported The Associated Press.
All told, nearly 19,000 people across the country lost their lives in traffic accidents through June, and the tally doesn't include two of the highest months for traffic deaths, July and August.
If the trend continues, traffic deaths this year could exceed 40,000 for the first time since 2007, when there were nearly 44,000 deaths, said Hersman. The increases began in the last quarter of 2014 and have been recorded consistently through each month of this year.
The nation's driving steadily increased for 15 consecutive months through May, the Transportation Department said in July. Americans drove 1.26 trillion miles in the first five months of 2015, passing the previous record, 1.23 trillion, set in May 2007.
However, the cumulative increase in vehicle mileage this year through May is 3.4 percent, far less than the 14 percent increase in deaths, said Hersman. Also, the estimated annual mileage death rate so far this year is 1.3 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up from the preliminary 2014 rate of 1.2 deaths.
In recent decades, deaths due to crashes involving drunken driving have dropped from about 50 percent of fatalities to about 30 percent, said Hersman. Teen driving deaths are also down, and seatbelt use is up. And cars have more safety technology than ever, although drivers sometimes don't use it or don't know how to use it.
However, a growing number of states are raising speed limits, and everywhere drivers are distracted by cellphone calls and text messages. The council estimated in a report this spring that a quarter of all crashes involve cellphone use. Besides fatal crashes, that includes injury-only and property damage-only crashes.
"For many years people have said, 'If distraction is such a big issue, why don't we see an increase in fatal crash numbers?' Well, we're seeing increasing fatal crashes numbers, but I think it's complicated to tease out what that is due to," said Hersman.
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices, confirmed that states have taken note of the trend as well.
Given the stronger economy, lower unemployment and low gas prices, "we have expected an uptick in travel and, sadly, deaths," he said.
"The increase is definitely troubling," Adkins said. "But after such historic declines in recent years, it's not unexpected to see an upswing."
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