Rescue crews from four departments respond to a deadly ... Rescue crews from four departments respond to a deadly two-vehicle crash along the Shenango Valley Freeway, Friday, Nov. 8, 2013 in Sharon, Pa. Two high school football players died Friday night in the crash that also killed a third person, according to state high school sports officials. (AP photo).
The number of Americans killed in traffic accidents increased in 2012 for the first time in seven years.

Traffic fatalities climbed 3.3 percent to 33,561 last year, according to data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday morning, an average of 91.1 Americans per day, according to an AOL Autos calculation. It's the first increase since 2005.

"While we've made substantial progress over the past 50 years, it's clear that we have much more work to do," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a written statement.

Preliminary data had shown an increase in fatalities through the first half of 2012, so the increase was somewhat expected. Yet there were other concerning developments.

More than 2.3 million Americans were injured in accidents, an increase of 145,000 over the previous year. NHTSA says it's the first "statistically significant" rise in injuries in 17 years.

NHTSA chief administrator David Strickland announced an initiative that would take a three-pronged approach to fast-tracking technology that could cut the number of deaths and injuries, advocating interlocking seatbelts, which could prevent cars from being driven if occupants are not buckled, an alcohol-detection system for drivers that is at least five years from being implemented and forward-collision avoidance and mitigation technology.

Those systems benefit drivers, but not the people outside the vehicle, who saw the biggest increases in fatalities last year. Pedestrian deaths rose 6.4 percent, increasing for the third straight year. Bicyclist deaths increased 6.5 percent, increasing for the third straight year.

Motorcyclist deaths rose 7.1 percent, jumping to 4,743, which accounted for 15 percent of the total number of traffic deaths. Ten times as many motorcyclists died riding without helmets in states that do not require their use than in states with such laws, NHTSA said. More than 93,000 motorcyclists were injured.

"We've built crash-worthy motor vehicles, and the number of drivers dying will move toward zero with all the technology coming," said Mark Plotz, senior associate at The National Center For Biking and Walking. "The problem we haven't solved is, 'what about the people out there without crash cages?''"

While many may blame cell-phone-addled drivers for the rise in deaths that occur beyond the car, the statistics for 2012 portray a muddled message: The number of distracted-driving deaths ticked down 1 percent to 3,328, yet the number of distracted-driving injuries jumped 9 percent.

Other concerning numbers: The number of alcohol-related fatalities climbed 4.6 percent last year, and alcohol-related deaths account for 31 percent of overall fatalities. The majority of those crashes involved drivers with a blood-alcohol concentration of .15 or higher, NHTSA said.

Occupants of large trucks saw death rates rise for the third consecutive year, increasing 8.9 percent year over year in 2012.

Though the report had some grim statistics, there were pockets of good news, too.

Thirteen states saw reductions in overall traffic fatalities, including Mississippi, which had 48 fewer traffic deaths, the biggest improvement in the United States. Eighteen states saw decreases in drunk-driving deaths, led by New Jersey, which had 30 fewer such deaths.

Preliminary data for 2013 shows that overall traffic fatalities rates fell 4.2 percent during the first half of the year.

While most age groupings showed an increase in fatalities in 2012, teen drivers saw an overall decrease. Death among 10-to-15-year-olds decreased 3.9 percent and those ages 16 to 20 saw a drop of 5.7 percent. And while alcohol-related deaths increased overall, they fell 15 percent among the 16-to-20-year-olds year over year.

Plotz sees that as evidence that graduated-drivers-license programs adopted by many states are effective and working, which leaves him wishing for some sort of expansion of education and testing programs.

"Those GDLs that most states have moved to are very effective," he said. "Overall, we need to get more serious. ... We've done a lot with improving cars, but not improving drivers."

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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