After declining for most of the past decade, traffic deaths spiked 8 percent in the first half of this year, prompting a call from the nation's highway safety chief for new ways to reduce fatalities.
The new estimate released Friday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration comes just as millions of Americans prepare to hit the road for the Thanksgiving holiday. AAA predicts that 42 million people will drive 50 miles or more over the coming weekend.
Officials released a final number of fatal crashes for 2014, which showed a decline of 0.1 percent. They said the big increase this year is due in part to lower gas prices and an improving economy that's prompting people to travel more. With gas prices at the lowest levels in years and the job market improving, Americans drove 1.54 trillion miles in the first half of 2015, up 3.5 percent from the same period in 2014.
But NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said that not all of the increase could be attributed to people driving more miles. He suspects that texting and other distracted driving while using smart phones was part of the cause, as well as drunken, drugged and drowsy driving, and increased driving by teenagers. NHTSA, he said, doesn't have clear enough data yet to pinpoint exact causes.
"These numbers are a wake-up call," Rosekind said of the increase. He said NHTSA will hold five meetings around the country early next year to get input on how to cut traffic deaths, followed by a larger meeting in Washington that would yield recommendations to address human decisions that cause 94 percent of all crashes.
"It is important for Americans to know that human behaviors are by far the largest cause of fatalities," Rosekind said. He urged people to stop using cell phones while driving, not to drink alcohol or use drugs and get behind the wheel, and to wear seat belts and motorcycle helmets.
Rosekind said 2014 statistics show that distracted driving caused about 10 percent of the 32,675 traffic deaths that year. But he said that since driver distraction is difficult to track, "that our numbers underestimated exactly what's going on out there."