US traffic deaths jumped 13.5 percent, largest spike since 2008

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A wrecked car at the side of the road.

U.S. traffic deaths spiked radically in the first quarter of 2012. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/Thue/Wikipedia)

In an age where automotive safety devices are as sophisticated as they’ve ever been, some distressing things have happened on U.S. highways in 2012. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic deaths in the first quarter of 2012 jumped a whopping 13.5 percent, to the highest fatality rate since 2008. Sources indicate this is the second-largest quarterly increase in U.S. traffic deaths since the NHTSA has kept track of such quarterly statistics, beginning in 1975.

Largest spike in traffic deaths since 1979

The significant increase in car accidents resulting in traffic deaths reportedly came as a surprise to NHTSA officials, who have been keeping track of quarterly fatality rates related to traffic accidents since 1975. The first three months of 2012 witnessed the largest spike in traffic fatalities since 1979, noted The Detroit News. The rate of traffic deaths for every 100 million miles of vehicle travel in the U.S. increased to 1.10 traffic deaths per 100 million miles logged, higher than the 0.98 per 100 million fatality rate from the first quarter of 2011.

According to NHTSA estimates, 7,630 U.S. drivers and passengers perished in car crashes over the first quarter, up from 6,720 the previous year. The 2012 increase actually snaps a string of steady decline in U.S. road deaths that had remained intact for the past seven years.

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Why does U.S. pavement run red?

Experts believe that a warmer than normal winter across the nation translated to more drivers on the roads. Typically, the cold winter months and related treacherous road conditions keep more drivers at home.

“However, the winter of 2012 was also unseasonably warmer than usual in most areas of the country,” noted the NHTSA in an official statement. “Consequently, the fatality rate for the first quarter should not be used to make inferences for the fatality rate for the whole of 2012.”

Traffic deaths in 2011 had fallen 1.7 percent overall for the year, representing the lowest known fatality rate on U.S. roads since 1949. In a May 2012 report, the NHTSA noted that 32,310 people were listed as vehicular fatalities over the course of 2011, down 1.7 percent from the 32,885 who died on U.S. highways in 2010. After hitting a fatality mark of 42,708 in 2005, traffic deaths decreased by a total of 26 percent heading into 2011.

Only 9.7 billion more miles driven

The number of miles driven on U.S. roads in the first three months of 2011 was 9.7 billion fewer than the first three months of this year. The recession and runaway gasoline prices impacted drive time last year, to its lowest point since 2003, noted the Washington Post. Overall in 2011, U.S. drivers drove 35.7 billion fewer miles than the previous year, a 1.2 percent drop.

Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, was stunned by this year’s number of traffic deaths.

“While it is too early to draw conclusions about the data and the reasons for the increase, the strengthening economy and the warm winter may be factors,” she said. “Any increase in traffic deaths is unacceptable and we remain absolutely committed to working with our partners at NHTSA and across the country to keep the roadways safe.”

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The Detroit News

Kansas City Star

Washington Post

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