2017-02-15 14:20:09
Rise in U.S. Traffic Deaths Reported for a Second Year

After years of steady progress making highways safer, auto-safety advocates are voicing alarm over a surge in traffic fatalities and fears that the deadly trend is strengthening.

Last year, traffic deaths increased 6 percent to 40,200, according to preliminary estimates released on Wednesday by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization that works closely with federal safety agencies.

If the estimates are confirmed, it will be the first time since 2007 that more than 40,000 have died in motor vehicle crashes in a single year. The 2016 total follows a 7 percent rise in 2015.

The safety council’s figures typically closely track the fatality totals that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration compiles. N.H.T.S.A. has not yet released a total for 2016.

Part of the increase is believed to stem from the improving economy, which causes Americans to drive more miles. But safety advocates say other factors are at work — in particular, slack enforcement of seatbelt, drunken driving and speeding laws.

“Our complacency is killing us. Americans believe there is nothing we can do to stop crashes from happening, but that isn’t true,” Deborah Hersman, the council’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “The U.S. lags the rest of the developed world in addressing highway fatalities. We know what needs to be done; we just haven’t done it.”

In Alabama, for example, steady budget cuts have resulted in a decline in the number of troopers patrolling the state’s 103,000 miles of highways. David Brown, a research associate at the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety, studied the state’s 2016 traffic fatality reports and found an increase in fatalities involving high-speed crashes.

“Total crashes were up less than 5 percent but fatalities were up 25 percent,” he said in an interview. “I think speeding is the No. 1 problem. There are times of the day when we only have one or two troopers on duty in a county, so you can speed, and there’s no one there to deter it.”

Safety advocates also say they believe that drivers’ use of smartphones and apps are leaving them increasingly distracted. A decade ago, the problem was mainly drivers making calls or sending texts from their cellphones. Today, Facebook, Google Maps, Snapchat and other apps can draw drivers’ eyes away from the road.

Last fall, N.H.T.S.A., the National Transportation Safety Board and several nongovernmental organizations, including the National Safety Council, began the Road to Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities within 30 years. The effort places heavy emphasis on the promise of autonomous vehicles.

But others say more needs to done now on basic road safety issues. “The way to bring down the rise in deaths is with a wide range of the nuts-and-bolts measures, not self-driving cars,” Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, said in an interview in October.

Mr. Nader said states could reduce traffic deaths simply by requiring rear-seat occupants to wear seatbelts, installing more cameras to catch speeding drivers without police presence and tightening regulations on heavy trucking.

In presenting its 2016 fatality estimates, the National Safety Council endorsed those ideas and also called for bans on all use of smartphones by drivers, even if they use hands-free calling or messaging.

The council is also advocating mandatory motorcycle helmet laws and ignition locks that prevent repeat drunken drivers from operating their vehicles while impaired.