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Traffic Deaths Highest Since 2008

July 01--Traffic fatalities in the U.S. rose 7.7% last year to 35,200, the highest death toll since 2008 and the first increase since 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported today.

Americans are driving more, but driver error remains the overwhelming factor, NHTSA found.

"As the economy has improved and gas prices have fallen, more Americans are driving more miles," said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. "But that only explains part of the increase; 94% of crashes can be tied back to a human choice or error, so we know we need to focus our efforts on improving human behavior while promoting vehicle technology that not only protects people in crashes, but helps prevent crashes in the first place."

The agency was careful about pointing to specific factors. The number of miles driven rose 3.5% from 2014. Beyond that, there was a 10% increase in fatalities involving young drivers between ages 15 and 20.

Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics for the National Safety Council, cited distracted driving as a reason for those types of deaths.

The percentage of drivers texting or visibly manipulating handheld devices increased from 0.9% in 2010 to 2.2% in 2014, according to NSC research. For drivers between ages 16 and 24 that rate jumps to 4.8% and young women are more likely to text than their male counterparts.

"Fatalities increased much more than vehicle miles traveled," said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina who has studied traffic safety and new technology. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that drivers are increasingly distracted and dangerous. At some point, we need to decide whether we will actually treat distracted and aggressive driving as a socially unacceptable behavior on par with its risk."

There was a 13% increase in traffic deaths of bicyclists and 10% increase for pedestrians hit by vehicles. Kolosh said cyclists and pedestrians are most vulnerable to distracted drivers because they have no metal structure around them.

Nine of the nation's 10 regions experienced substantial increases in traffic deaths, with the largest jump coming in the Pacific Northwest, Idaho and Montana. Traffic deaths increased 9% in the six-state Midwest, covering Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Southeast had the next sharpest increase at 14%. Only the Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico region saw a decrease (down 1%).

NHTSA is focusing on ways to reduce the most common behaviors that lead to traffic deaths, including drunken, drugged, distracted and drowsy driving, speeding and failure to use seat belts and child seats.

The data was released a day after the agency said it was launching an investigation into what appears to be the first death of a driver in a vehicle operating autonomously. Josh Brown was killed in May in Florida while his Tesla Model S was operating in Autopilot mode.

Despite incidents like that, federal and state safety regulators want to encourage safe ways to introduce semi-autonomous features. Later this month, NHTSA will release preliminary guidelines for autonomous vehicle technology.

In March, the U.S. Department of Transportation and automakers agreed to require by 2022 that all new vehicles have automatic emergency braking as standard equipment. Lane-departure alerts and more acute blind-spot detection are gradually making their way into the high-volume market segments.

DOT is working to require vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems on new vehicles, a technology which could help drivers avoid or mitigate 70% to 80% of crashes involving unimpaired drivers. That is significantly different from promoting fully autonomous transportation where occupants pay no attention to where the vehicle is going.

The government also is working with researchers on technologies that would prevent drunken drivers from activating a car's ignition. Drunken driving is responsible for close to one-third of highway deaths.

While that is much lower than in the 1980s, the NSC's Kolosh said there has been little progress in recent years in reducing the impact of drunken driving.

Contact Greg Gardner: 313-222-8762 or ggardner@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregGardner12

Copyright 2016 - Detroit Free Press

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