For six years, traffic fatalities in the U.S. have been on the decline. Suddenly, researchers are finding they have risen in the first half of 2012.
Traffic fatalities increase mysteriously
At the start of the year, traffic death statistics were at a 60 year low. The decline is generally thought to be because of seat belt laws, more awareness of impaired driving and a proliferation of safety devices, such as air bags, in modern cars. Why the numbers should suddenly change direction is something of a mystery.
The trend bucks normal statistics in times of economic stress. A spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Russ Rader, said:
“Traffic deaths drop in a recession, sometimes significantly. People who lose their jobs or are worried they may lose them don’t take as many optional trips, like driving at night or on weekends or going to parties or the bars. Once the economy improves, that driving comes back.”
And yet, according to a preliminary report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 16,290 people died on the nation’s highways between January and June. That is 1,340 more than in the same time period of the previous year.
The numbers boil down to a 13.4 percent increase for the first quarter of the year, when compared to 2011. For the second quarter, an increase of 5.3 percent was seen.
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Some believe that increased consumer confidence, brought on by economic growth, may be part of the explanation. When motorists can make their car payments, they may be inclined to drive more often, even with high gas prices.
Beware of jumping to conclusions, some warn
Others have urged caution about reading a trend into what may be a fluke. Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said:
“If there are increases over a three- or five-year period, then it’s time to take a second look at what is being done and retool. It’s extremely difficult to maintain steady decreases over time, and the increase is not unexpected.”
Besides the economy, the warm winter may also have played a role in the spike, said Harsha.
Lynda Tran of the NHTSA said the gap may also look wider because the current numbers are being compared against 2011, which had the fewest traffic fatalities of any year in the previous 60.
Perspectives on distracted driving
Harsha, whose group supports legislation barring cellphone use while driving, also implied that distracted driving may be part of the reason for the rise in traffic deaths. However, on the same day of the NHTSA’s report, Torque News posted its own research, saying that cell phone usage has increased as traffic deaths have declined.
The automotive news site says it culled its data from the NHTSA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, using reports that go back to 1985.
Torque News said:
“What the data show(s) is that as cell phones were introduced, and then became popular, and then almost universally used, the chances of being killed in an automobile accident declined -– and declined dramatically.”