US traffic deaths up sharply in first half of the year

 (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Matt Stamey)

U.S. traffic fatalities surged in the first six months of 2016, raising fresh concerns over distracted driving and highlighting efforts to equip vehicles with technologically advanced safety gear at an accelerated pace.

Traffic deaths rose 10.4% in the first half, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on Wednesday, a steep increase following a surprising uptick in fatalities last year. The recent increases led government officials to announce on Wednesday that they are partnering with the National Safety Council in an effort to end traffic fatalities within 30 years.

The U.S. logged more than 17,700 traffic fatalities in the first six months of 2016, regulators estimated. The increase recorded between January and June far outpaces the 3.3% increase in miles traveled on U.S. roads over the same period, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

While traffic fatalities are growing at an abnormal clip, absolute levels remain lower than they were a decade ago, when cars and trucks had far less safety gear. In the first half of 2006, for instance, 20,500 fatalities were recorded. The U.S. is currently experiencing a sustained stretch of low gasoline prices and employment gains, which tend to increase traffic and the risk of fatal crashes.

It remains too early to pinpoint specific reasons for the increase in fatalities, though, regulators said, adding that final data for 2015 and 2016 wouldn’t become available until the fall of next year, and totals could be revised.

Still, more than 35,000 traffic deaths were reported on American roads in 2015, the largest increase since 1966 and the first uptick in a few years.

“We have an immediate crisis on our hands,” said NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind at a conference in Washington, adding that officials have a long-term challenge to stem the increase and ultimately eliminate road deaths.

The fatality total is “not just a number,” Mr. Rosekind said. “Those are people.”

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