Traffic deaths increasing since late 2014 – but why?

In case you haven’t noticed, you’re paying less at the gas pump these days – down an average 30 percent from 2014.

Good news, right?

And America has been steadily adding jobs throughout 2015.

More good news! (Although some folks might quibble over the quality of those jobs.)

But the rosy picture has some thorns.

Gas prices are down, employment is up – and traffic fatalities have increased.

What’s the real reason? / Image – Egerton Law

Cheap gas means more driving.

More jobs mean more commuters, which means more driving.

More driving, at least in part, has played a part in a 14 percent rise in traffic fatalities in 2015.

That’s according the nonprofit National Safety Council.

There were more than 18,600 motor-vehicle deaths from January through June this year, compared to 16,400 deaths in the first six months of 2014.

That puts the year on pace to be the deadliest for drivers since 2007, CNN Money reports.

And that doesn’t even include July and August, two of the worst months for traffic deaths.

At this rate, traffic deaths this year could go over 40,000 for the first time since 2007, when there were nearly 44,000 deaths, Deborah A.P. Hersman, president of the council said. The increases began in the last quarter of 2014, Hersman told the Associated Press.

The estimated cost of the deaths, injuries and property damage related to the crashes is $152 billion – up 24 percent from the same period of 2014.

"The costs include wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, employer costs, and property damage," an NSC news release says.

More to the story

The better economy and gas prices mean more road miles, said Hersman, but that doesn’t entirely account for the increase in deaths and injuries.

She also attributes the uptick in deadly crashes to the fact that drivers are more distracted because of cell phones, in spite of the nearly nationwide ban on texting while driving.

Roadside surveys conducted by the NSC found more Americans are on their phones despite the bans.

Of course, that’s not news. Texting is especially dangerous, but about 1 in 4 crashes involve cell phone use period, the NSC says. According to a study by Carnegie Mellon University, activity in the part of the brain that processes moving images and is important for safe driving decreases by as much as 37 percent while listening to language. Drivers talking on cell phones can miss seeing up to 50 percent of their driving environments.

Other factors suggest this increase in fatal crashes is not just a statistical inevitability. As the AP reports, the cumulative increase in vehicle mileage this year through May is 3.4 percent, far less than the 14 percent increase in deaths. The estimated annual mileage death rate so far this year is 1.3 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up from the preliminary 2014 rate of 1.2 deaths.

Also, in recent decades deadly crashes involving drunken driving have dropped from about 50 percent of fatalities to about 30 percent. Teen driving deaths are also down, and seatbelt use is up. And cars have more safety technology than ever.

The experts seem to believe, and I agree, that cell phone use is a huge, huge, factor in highway deaths.

But at any rate, remember:

There are more drivers out there.

So be more careful out there.

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