Traffic fatalities up for first time since 2005, data show

Fatal accidents that killed motorcyclists, bike riders and pedestrians helped drive up the number of U.S. traffic fatalities in 2012 for the first time since 2005, according to federal data released Thursday.

Higher death rates among those who travel the roadways on two wheels or on foot accounted for more than half of the increase, and 28 percent of the total number of 33,561 people killed last year, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The overall death toll rose by 1,802 deaths over 2011, and that total was increased by 657 additional deaths of motorcyclists, bike riders and pedestrians. The 9,426 deaths of road users in those three categories were only slightly eclipsed by the number of deaths attributed to drunken driving: 10,322.

“While highway deaths continue to remain at historic lows, and the preliminary 2013 results indicate a return to a downward trend, 2012 data tells us that we still have a great deal of work to do at NHTSA and as a country to reduce needless fatalities on our roadways,” NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland said. “We know that 90 percent of all crashes involve an element of human error. Americans are still driving drunk, are still driving distracted and aren’t always wearing their seat belts.”

The District joined 13 states in recording fewer traffic fatalities. Maryland and Virginia saw increases.

In addition to the deaths, the NHTSA data showed that nearly 2.4 million people were injured in crashes last year, a 6.5 percent increase from 2011.

NHTSA preliminary data for the first six months of this year show that 15,470 people have died in crashes, a decrease of 4.2 percent compared with the same period last year. Statistics compiled by the Federal Highway Administration show that Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer miles from January through July this year.

Strickland said he would fast-track a program to encourage automakers to install new seat-belt interlock systems.

“Each year, more than 3,000 people are killed in crashes that they could have survived because they were not wearing a belt. This technology can save those lives,” Strickland said.

He also said NHTSA would forge ahead on new technology that would prevent drunk drivers from starting their cars and on crash avoidance equipment that would alert drivers when their vehicles stray into danger.

“Last year, one-third of all police reported crashes [that] involved a rear end collision with another vehicle. This technology could avoid those collisions,” Strickland said.

The report on 2012 fatalities found that pedestrian deaths increased for the third consecutive year, up 6.4 percent over the previous year. Motorcycle deaths also rose for the third year, up 7.1 percent. Deaths among bike riders increased for the second straight year, up 6.5 percent.

Drunken driving deaths were up 4.6 percent, with the majority of those drivers showing blood alcohol levels above .15, nearly double the legal limit.

The number of people whose deaths were attributed to distracted driving in 2012 decreased slightly from 3,360 in 2011 to 3,328.

The increase in deaths was not a reflection of a rebounding economy. The data showed that Americans drove about the same number of miles in 2012 as they had the year before.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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