Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Highway deaths up; higher speed limits blamed

Traffic deaths are going up, and higher speed limits in rural areas are being blamed as one reason.

The National Safety Council issued a report this week saying that traffic fatalities have risen dramatically for the second straight year. Its preliminary estimates "indicate motor vehicle deaths were 9 percent higher through the first six months of 2016 than in 2015, and 18 percent higher than two years ago at the six month mark," a press release said. "An estimated 19,100 people have been killed on U.S. roads since January, and 2.2 million were seriously injured."

With gas prices 16 percent lower this year compared to 2015, the increase in fatalities can be attributed in part to people putting in more time on the road, the council told Fredrick Kunkle of The Washington Post. "The mileage people have driven is up 3.3 percent because of cheaper gas and a decent economy . . . but that’s half the story," Kunkle writes. "Part of the reason for the increase in traffic deaths is also that speed limits have gone up," mainly because of demands from rural residents.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said higher speed limits killed 33,000 people from 1993 to 2013. Many states have raised or sought to raise highway speed limits this year, including WyomingOregonIowa and Michigan, despite concern from safety groups.

Deborah A.P. Hersman, who chaired the National Transportation Safety Board from 2009 to 2014, told Kunkle that she has little doubt that the increase in traffic deaths can also be attributed to the distracted driving and the ubiquitous use of smartphones and other technology in people’s cars. Kunkle notes, however, that there is no definitive link, "perhaps because crashes are reported in a way that doesn’t capture the impact of distracted driving."

Fatalities on U.S. highways increased 7.2 percent in 2015, the largest one-year increase since 1966, says a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Last year 35,092 people died in traffic fatalities on U.S. highways, up from 32,744 in 2014. The number of injuries increased from 2.34 million to 2.44 million.

The report says the number of fatalities had largely been going down the past 10 years, but "with the large increase in fatalities in 2015, that decade-long downward trend of almost 25 percent has been reduced by almost one-third." (DOT graphic: Annual percentage-point change in highway fatalities, 1966-2015)
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributes the large increase in fatalities in 2015 to more drivers (due to job growth), lower gas prices and an increased number of drivers who are young, distracted, drunk or not following safety precautions, Jeff Plungis reports for Bloomberg. NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a statement: “The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled. While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities.”

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