Deaths on the nation's roads increased 9.3 percent through the first nine months of 2015 compared to the previous year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Friday. Should that percentage hold for the final three months of the year, the increase would be the largest percentage spike from one year to the next since 1946.
"We're seeing red flags across the US, and we're not waiting for the situation to develop further," said NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind. "It's time to drive behavioral changes in traffic safety, and that means taking on new initiatives and addressing persistent issues like drunk driving and failure to wear seat belts."
Through the first nine months of 2015, 26,000 Americans lost their lives in traffic crashes, compared to 23,796 during the first nine months of 2014. That's an increase of 2,204 lives lost.
Cheap gas prices and a strong economy may be partially to blame. The nation's unemployment rate has dropped below 5 percent, and with more Americans commuting to work, they're spending more time on the road. And with more discretionary money to spend, affordable gas prices are fueling road trips and vacations. Americans drove an estimated 3.06 trillion miles in 2015, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
"We're seeing red flags across the U.S., and we're not waiting for the situation to develop further." - Mark Rosekind
But those factors alone do not explain the rise. The rate of fatalities has increased faster than miles driven. The FHA estimates a 3.5-percent rise in the number of vehicle miles driven for 2015, meaning fatalities are increasing at a rate about three times that of the increase in miles driven. Deaths per million miles traveled have increased from 1.05 per million miles to 1.10 deaths per million miles. The 1.05 per-million-mile figure was the lowest ever recorded, meaning by historical standards, it's still a comparatively safe time to be out on the road.
Though traffic deaths have fallen 22 percent since 2000, they've increased in four consecutive quarters, according to the federal data. Though many experts point to cell-phone use behind the wheel as one probable cause of the steep rise, there's not yet hard data that supports that conclusion. There's a geographic component to the risk. Fatalities in the Pacific Northwest jumped 20 percent year over year, according to NHTSA, and fatalities in the Southeast rose 16 percent. They rose 14 percent in New England, and by 12 percent in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. California and Arizona saw only a 3 percent rise, while Texas and its surrounding states saw the nation's slowest rise at 2 percent.
"For decades, U.S. DOT has been driving safety improvements on our roads, and those efforts have resulted in a steady decline in highway deaths," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a written statement. "But the apparent increase in 2015 is a signal that we need to do more."
Statistics show that unbelted motorists comprise only about 13 percent of the driving population, yet they account for approximately 48 percent of all fatalities.
Friday's latest data doesn't break down the deaths into more detailed information, but earlier federal reports indicated that death rates were still dropping for vehicle occupants. The biggest spikes were from vulnerable road users like pedestrians, whose collective death rate had risen more than 10 percent from 2014 to 2015.