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What's Driving the Massive Surge in Traffic Deaths?
What's Driving the Massive Surge in Traffic Deaths?


For the better part of a year, Mark Rosekind has sounded the alarm on the rising carnage on America’s roads. In speeches delivered before audiences of automotive executives, transportation officials, and safety advocates, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has warned of a spike in traffic fatalities and repeatedly equated the weekly toll on U.S. roads to the crash of a Boeing 747 on a weekly basis.

Sadly, that comparison is now outdated.

The latest traffic-fatality figures released this week show that 35,092 people were killed on public roads in 2015, an average of 672 every week, which is beyond the capacity of the jumbo jet in its highest-passenger configuration.

That Rosekind must now revise one of his most grim talking points is indicative of the surge in traffic deaths occurring across the country. The latest annual statistics represent a 7.2-percent increase from the 32,744 recorded in 2014, the fastest one-year rise in a half-century. Not since an 8.1-percent increase from 1965 to 1966 has there been such a spike.

"If we don’t accept that 35,000 people dying is a given, maybe we can change behavior a little bit and make things safer next year.”

—David Cole

There have been warning signs. Deaths for pedestrians and bicyclists had been on the upswing of late, while the numbers for vehicle occupants ticked downward thanks to the introduction of new technologies like airbags, electronic stability control and, more recently, automated emergency braking systems. But now, the rising figures include almost all types of road users.

According to the latest data, the number of fatalities among SUV occupants jumped 10.1 percent from 2014. The number of fatalities in van occupants increased 9.3 percent. For passenger-car occupants, it was a 5.7-percent increase and for pickup-truck occupants, a 4.7-percent increase. Meanwhile, things got even worse for what are termed "vulnerable road users." Pedestrian fatalities jumped 9.5 percent to 5376 and bicyclist fatalities spiked more than 12 percent to 818; both cases represent levels not seen in two decades. Motorcyclist fatalities increased by 8.3 percent to 4976, the highest number in four years.

On Monday, the across-the-board spikes prompted an unprecedented “call to action” from the White House, and the Department of Transportation released its annual figures three months earlier than usual in hopes of drawing more attention to the sharp reversal in what had been long-term trends over decades toward safer roads.

“We are in a bad place,” Rosekind (shown below) said last month in San Francisco. “This is a bad situation, and we should be desperate for new tools that will help us save lives.”

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