Good economic conditions send traffic fatalities soaring

Roadway Deaths On Pace For Largest Percentage Increase In 69 Years

The economy is good. The gas prices are low. This is an ideal summer for road-trippers, commuters, and motorists of every kind. But the good times come at a high cost.

As more people take advantage of affordable driving conditions, more are dying in car crashes. Traffic fatalities have increased 14 percent in the first six months of 2015 compared to the previous year, a whopping spike that could foretell the deadliest year on American highways in nearly a decade.

Through the first six months of this year, 18,630 people were killed on US roads, according to data collected by the National Safety Council. Should the current pace continue, the annual death toll could top 40,000 motorists for the first time since 2007. On a percentage basis, the surge could become the highest year-over-year increase in 69 years. "We were all surprised at how significant the number was," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "Most people are unaware of this trend."

The numbers come on the heels of another disconcerting report issued last week that concluded pedestrian deaths have increased 15 percent over the past five years, in part because walkers have become more distracted by cell phones. While it'd be tempting to conclude 2015's death toll had spiked for similar reasons, there's not yet conclusive data that shows phone-related distractions have become a greater problem for drivers. To borrow a political phrase, "It's the economy, stupid." And it's too good.

"You've got low unemployment, low gas prices, and people are commuting more and driving more," said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "Folks have got the money now to go to happy hours, football games, travel on the weekends, and that's typically when fatal crashes occur. They've got the money to do these other activities that can lead to crashes."

Unemployment in the United States has remained below six percent throughout the year, and dropped to 5.3 percent in June and July, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. That's the lowest level since June 2008. When the unemployment rate hovered below 5 percent in 2007, that's the last year in which the roadway death toll topped 40,000, at 41,259 lives lost. That trend has converged with gas prices that are 30 percent lower than they were in 2014, according to the National Safety Council, and they're projected to remain stable heading into 2016.

In May, a South Dakota State University researcher predicted that a prolonged period of cheap gas would increase traffic deaths. In a worst-case scenario, Guangqing Chi said the United States could see a 27.5-percent increase in traffic deaths with gas prices at $2 per gallon. While the spike now documented by the National Safety Council hasn't been as dramatic as that projection, a 14-percent increase would nonetheless be the most substantial year-over-year percentage increase since a 17.7-percent rise in 1946, according to traffic-death data kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It's not only the economy

Thriving economic indicators may explain part of the increase in deaths, but perhaps are not be responsible for the entire increase. In the first five months of 2014, the number of vehicle miles traveled in the country stood at 1,219.5 billion, according to National Safety Council figures. Drivers logged 1,264.5 billion miles through the first five months of this year – a 3.6-percent increase that doesn't parallel the 14-percent surge in deaths.

"We know when the economy is in recession, we see traffic fatalities go down, and when it improves, the fatalities go up, but that belies the significance of the trend," Hersman said. She said researchers spotted the rise in deaths during the final three months of 2014, and the rise has been consistent across the first six months of 2015, and it only got worse as the most-dangerous summer driving season approached. "That's what really alarmed us," she said. "We were heading into the 100 deadly days of summer, and it was already high."

Adkins says it's hard to draw conclusions from preliminary data, but that drivers are generally killing themselves and others the same way they typically have in the past. "It's belts, booze, and speed," he said. "We know speeding kills, and there are still some states increasing speed limits. It's impairment, alcohol and perhaps with drugs. We're certainly looking at those areas."

If anything, a regression in seat-belt use may be most disconcerting. Eighty-seven percent of motorists wear seat-belts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's latest-available numbers, but those who remain unbelted comprised 49 percent of in-vehicle fatalities in 2013. Anecdotally, Adkins said states are reporting upticks in non-use.

Two high-profile crashes this year underscore that risk. In May, "Beautiful Mind" mathematician John Nash and his wife were killed in an accident involving their taxi cab. They were unbelted. In February, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was not wearing his seatbelt and killed in an accident involving a limousine for hire.

Cell phones a concern

Hersman wasn't as quick to eliminate cell-phone use as a possible contributor to the deadly increase. Through her prior work at the NTSB and current research at the National Safety Council, she said gleaning accurate information from crash reports can be a stubborn problem. Often, drivers don't admit they were distracted in the moments leading to accidents, and law enforcement doesn't have the technology resources to probe cell-phone use in every crash. An AAA study released in June affirmed those potential pitfalls, finding distractions were a factor in 58 percent of teen-driving accidents when federal data showed distractions contributed to only 14 percent of crashes.

The National Safety Council estimates smartphone-caused distractions are responsible for as much as 25 percent of traffic crashes. "It takes weeks to get those cell-phone records and sometimes officers are writing crash reports right at the scene, so we know that the crash data doesn't give a full picture of what the risk is," Hersman said. "... So we absolutely think distractions could be a factor here."

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