Despite the improved safety of modern cars, American traffic deaths have been on the rise in recent years. Estimates just released by the National Safety Council this week suggest the number of Americans killed in motor vehicle crashes last year has passed a shocking milestone.

According to CNN, the NSC estimates that 40,200 Americans were killed in car crashes in 2016. That is a 6% increase in fatal crashes from 2015. If these estimates prove to be true, it would mark the first time in nearly a decade that traffic deaths have exceeded 40,000 in a single year.

The sharp rise in fatalities in recent years after decades of decline is a serious red flag for traffic safety advocates. NSC president Deborah A.P. Hersman suggested that complacency on the part of society and lawmakers is one of the biggest issues.

"Many times, people act like there's nothing we can do to prevent these crashes, but at the end of the day they're all preventable," Hersman told CNN. "It's not going to be easy, and it's not going to be popular, but at some point we must have the stomach to do something different."

The problem has been brewing for a few years now. In 2015, traffic deaths increased 7.2 percent from 2014, the largest increase in fatalities in 50 years. The problem can partial be blamed on a strong economy and low gas prices, but those reasons don't fully explain the incredible uptick in fatalities. A dramatic increase in distracted drivers and pedestrians is certainly a factor and CityLab also points to lax seatbelt and helmet laws.

"The trend is clear," said Johnathan Adkins, Executive Director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "After years of progress, highway deaths are heading in the wrong direction. The good news is we know what works to save lives–high visibility enforcement of strong traffic laws coupled with public education and awareness."

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