Traffic deaths in the US have seen the biggest increase in 50 years—and nobody knows why

Why so many crashes?
Why so many crashes?
Image: Reuters/Tom Mihalek
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Something’s not quite right on US roads, and the Department of Transportation doesn’t know why. The number of deaths from crashes in 2015 increased by 7.2% compared to 2014—the biggest increase in 50 years—killing more than 35,000 people. The last time traffic deaths saw such a large uptick was in 1966, when the number rose by 8.1%.

What’s worse is that this year’s interim figures suggest 2016 might see the biggest jump in deaths since 1945. The number of traffic deaths in the first six months increased by 10.4% compared to 2015.

Nearly 95% of all traffic deaths occur because of human error, which means the more we drive the more deaths there will be. The number of miles traveled increased by 3.5% in 2015, which is the biggest increase in 25 years. If it is a one-to-one relationship, that only partially explains the increase in traffic deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is not sure what the real reasons are behind the increase. “It is too soon to attribute contributing factors or potential implications of any changes in deaths on our roadways,” the agency said.

The stark increase has raised an alarm in the the Obama administration. On Oct. 5, the National Safety Council announced the “Road to Zero“ coalition, which aims to bring traffic deaths down to zero, including those on sidewalks and cycle paths, by 2046.

The coalition is looking to invest $3 million over the next three years to provide grants for projects that can help increase safety. It is releasing data on traffic deaths in recent years in the hope that scientists will find new ways to analyze the trends. It is also betting on an increase in the use of self-driving cars to reduce traffic accidents and last month it released new rules to regulate automated vehicles.

Although the recent rise in traffic deaths is alarming, US roads are a lot safer compared to the 1970s. In 1969, for example, some 26 people per 100,000 died in crashes. In 2015, despite the recent increase, that figure is only 11 per 100,000.

And, yet, traffic deaths are largely avoidable. Any slack in progress must be taken seriously. The Obama administration is right to be worried.