Federal safety regulators released some troubling news in their latest highway safety assessment: Traffic accident deaths soared in 2015, reversing five decades of steady, life-saving progress that made U.S. roads and highways safer.
According to the Department of Transportation (DOT) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 35,092 people died in traffic crashes last year – a rise of 7.2 percent in the number of deaths reported in 2014. Data showed that traffic deaths are on the rise across nearly every segment of the population.
The last time that the U.S. saw a single-year increase of this magnitude was in 1966, when traffic deaths jumped 8.1 percent.
NHTSA said that aggressive safety campaigns have helped lower the number of traffic deaths dramatically in recent years. Ten years ago, 42,708 people were killed in U.S. traffic accidents – about 25 percent higher than 2015.
Since then, extensive safety programs and awareness campaigns have helped lower the number of deaths by increasing seat belt use and reducing impaired driving. Better safety technology and other vehicle improvements, including air bags and electronic stability control, have also helped reduce the number of traffic crashes.
According to NHTSA, job growth and low fuel prices were two factors that led to increased driving, including increased leisure driving, and increased driving by young people, all of which can translate into higher fatality rates to some degree. U.S. motorists traveled 3.5 percent more miles in 2015 than in 2015 – the largest increase in 25 years, the DOT said.
Pedestrian and bicycling fatalities increased to a level not seen in 20 years. Motorcyclist deaths increased more than 8 percent.
NHTSA also noted human factors continued to contribute to the majority of crashes. Almost half of passenger vehicle occupants killed were not wearing seat belts. Research shows almost one in three fatalities involved drunk drivers or speeding. One in 10 fatalities involved distracted driving, such as using a smartphone to text while driving.
The sudden spike in traffic deaths has prompted the DOT, NHTSA, and White House to issue and unprecedented call to action to involve state and local government officials, data scientists, public health experts, students, researchers, and anyone else to look at the data and share any insight they gain, especially with the harder-to-explain spike in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities.
“The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled,” said NHTSA Administrator, Dr. Mark Rosekind. “While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities.”