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Traffic deaths are up, multiple factors are to blame

Traffic deaths are up, multiple factors are to blame

Your odds of getting killed in a car crash just got higher, but only maybe and only by a little. It seems that economic recovery, hard partying, warm weather, and motorcycles may share the blame for the rising roadway risks.

In the first half of 2012, the United States saw a 9-percent increase in traffic fatalities compared with the first half of 2011, according to estimates released this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

That’s the worst percentage increase in decades and means that 1,340 more people died on the road from January through June of 2012 than in the same period during the prior year. (Download NHTSA report.)

Quick hint, slow answer
NHTSA’s numbers come from a sophisticated statistical prediction designed to give an early warning before the hard numbers of traffic deaths can be gathered and analyzed, which takes about a year. What the model, known as FastFARS, doesn’t do is break out the who, what, and why.

Party time
Speculation as to the cause for the increase falls first on an improving economy, which usually means more driving and thus more exposure to risk. And in the first half of 2012 Americans drove some 15 billion miles more than a year earlier. But that was less than a 2-percent increase in miles traveled—far less than the nine-percent bump in fatalities.

In explaining potential causes for the increase, Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), points out that “all miles aren’t the same.” Leisure driving, which includes nighttime partying, is inherently more hazardous, and people do more of that when they have more money in their pockets.

Driver distraction may also play a role, as society embraces smart-phones and the constant interaction that the gadgets inspire. Also, our experts wonder if the trend toward complex and distracting controls may become a statistical factor, as well. Even when the body count is official it remains exceedingly difficult to estimate how many crashes were caused by inattentive drivers and what the source of their distraction was. But it is clear, doing anything in the car (e.g., eating, calling, texting) increases crash risks.

Maybe it’s the Harleys…
Another factor Rader points to is the unusually mild winter and spring in many parts of the country that brought out more motorcycles, which have a much higher death rate than passenger vehicles. Since this NHTSA analysis doesn’t break out motorcycle fatalities from car-occupant fatalities, it’s impossible to tell what role bikes may have played.

Bottom line
Whether the hike in traffic deaths is the start of a trend or a temporary bump in what has been an encouraging down-hill race remains an open question.

Annual fatalities dropped 25 percent from a recent peak of 43,510 in 2005 to 32,310 in 2011—a huge improvement. In fact, one reason the nine-percent figure appears so shocking is that 2011 was a year of record low deaths—the best showing in 60 years. It may be small comfort, but the disturbing fatality number for the first half of 2012 is still modestly better than the figure for the same period of 2009.

Ultimately, this news serves as a reminder that we all need to be careful behind the wheel, or handle bars, for the safety of ourselves and others. Drive responsibly.

Guide to car safety
Guide to distracted driving
Tips to make the roads safer for cars and motorcycles
Teens are learning distracted driving behavior from parents
Drivers wreck once a decade; are you ready to crash?
Researchers weigh in on the issue of distracted driving

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