US Highway Deaths Up 8.1% This Year, DOT Says

The death toll on U.S. highways rose 8.1% in the first half of 2015 as low fuel prices contributed to a jump in miles driven by Americans, according to new figures from the Transportation Department.

The preliminary figures represent a “troubling departure” from a general downward trend over the past decade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a report released Nov. 24. In 2014, the fatality rate hit an all-time low.

“These numbers are a call to action,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an e-mailed statement. “Everyone with a responsibility for road safety — the federal, state and local governments, law enforcement, vehicle manufacturers, safety advocates and road users — needs to reassess our efforts to combat threats to safety.”

Americans drove about 51.9 billion miles more in the first half of 2015 than the same period last year, about a 3.5% increase, NHTSA said. Job growth and low fuel prices also may be factors in the sudden, unexpected surge in highway fatalities, the agency said. There also was amore leisure travel and driving by young people, which can contribute to higher fatality rates.

However, the death rate also increased. Fatalities per million vehicle-miles driven in the first half of 2015 was 1.06%, or 4.4% higher than the same period in 2014.

In final figures for 2014, 32,675 people died in U.S. motor-vehicle crashes, a 0.1% decline from 2013. The fatality rate declined to 1.07 deaths per million vehicle-miles traveled, which was a record low for a complete year.

There were significant regional differences in fatalities so far this year as Southeastern states — Florida, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee — saw a 15% increase. The second-highest increase, 11%, was recorded in a group of Western states: Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. By contrast, California and Arizona saw no increase in fatalities, and the New England region saw an increase of 1%.

The biggest factors in traffic fatalities remain the lack of seat-belt use and drunken driving. Nearly half of all people killed in road crashes aren’t wearing seat belts, and one-third of all fatalities are in crashes involving intoxicated drivers.

Distracted driving accounted for 3,179 deaths in 2014, about 10% of the total. Drowsy driving was involved in 2.6% of the fatalities.

States without mandatory motorcycle helmet laws saw a “far higher” number of fatalities than states with such laws, the agency said. There were 1,565 motorcycle deaths in 2014, it said.