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Preliminary data from 2016 shows that the number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. is on an unfortunate upward trend.

There are a variety of reasons that auto accident fatalities are on the rise, but many analysts point to an increase in various types of driver distractions, such as texting while driving.

Traffic Deaths in 2016
Credit: National Safety Council (NSC)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provided preliminary data in early 2017 regarding traffic fatalities during the first nine months of 2016. The National Safety Council has released its own estimates, and this in turn has provided stronger evidence that there was a sharp increase in the number of car accident deaths in the United States last year.

The statistics from the NHTSA and NSC are never exactly the same. One reason for that is the NHTSA is a federal agency and only considers a fatality to be related to a traffic wreck if the death occurs with 30 days following the crash. The NSC is a non-profit agency which looks at things from a broader view and includes related deaths that occur as long as one year after a crash. This means the NSC’s numbers are somewhat higher than NHTSA’s, but both see the same overall trends.

Comparing NSC and NHTSA statistical data.

According to NHTSA, approximately 27,875 vehicle occupants, pedestrians, and bicyclists were killed in automobile accidents during the first nine months of 2016. This represents an increase of eight percent over the 25,808 deaths that were recorded in the first nine months of 2015. On the other hand, NSC estimates showed 40,200 deaths in all of 2016, compared to 37,757 in 2015. This is an increase of approximately six percent. In spite of the differences in how each agency defines “traffic related death,” the truth is that both agencies reported dramatic increases between 2015 and 2016.

While a six to eight percent increase may sound like a relatively-small change, it’s important to note that traffic fatalities also rose 10.5 percent in 2015. Prior to 2015, the last time traffic fatalities increased seven percent in a single year was way back in 1964. Overall, car accident fatalities have declined significantly over the last two decades, which makes this recent trend quite concerning.

Numbers vary from state to state.

While the NSC showed that some states saw a decrease in the number of traffic deaths in 2016, others reported very alarming increases. Alabama numbers increased by 23%, Alaska by 29%, Hawaii by 27%, Texas by 7%, and New Mexico by a whopping 34%. Figures for three states remained consistent, while twelve states recorded decreases. In fact, five less-populous states (Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming) showed improvements in the double digits.

NHTSA has broken down these numbers by region:

NHTSA 2016 Traffic Fatality Map

Causes and statistical variations.

While some speculate that there’s a direct correlation between the number of overall miles traveled and the number of traffic fatalities, this is not entirely accurate. The number of traffic deaths over the past several decades has decreased significantly, in spite of the increase in the number of miles traveled over the same period.

How is this possible? Even though some analysts place the blame on distracted driving, others do not believe the answer is so simple. Some safety advocates blame a variety factors, including:

  • Ineffective enforcement of seat belt use
  • Failure to follow speeding laws
  • Drunken driving
  • Use of smart phones while driving

This increase in traffic fatalities shows that there is a definite need for improvement, and a recent survey by the NSC showed that drivers truly are concerned about safety. Unfortunately, not all of them drive in a manner that exercises this concern. The best way to avoid a car accident is to control what you can; your own driving. Put the phone down, avoid distractions, drive to conditions, refrain from speeding or following too closely, and always drive defensively.

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