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Fatal traffic accident rates are up for the first time since 2005

Over the past couple of decades, a lot of safety improvements have been put into place that we all believed would cut down on serious and deadly traffic accidents. Better safety features and improved crash technology in vehicles, along with better road design seemed to be having a profound effect -- starting in 1999, the nationwide rate of fatal accidents began to drop, reaching an historic low in 2011.

Unfortunately, last year the fatal accident rates rose for the first time since 2005, both in California and nationwide. Preliminary numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that U.S. traffic deaths were up by 7.1 percent in the first nine months of 2012. The nonprofit National Safety Council's full-year estimates showed the fatal accident rate up by only 5 percent nationwide and 7 percent in California, but any of these estimates would be bad news. An estimated 36,200 people were killed in U.S. traffic accidents last year.

What explains this sudden reversal? The NSC's three main suspects are 1) a substantial increase in total miles driven, 2) the continual proliferation of texting and cell phone use while driving, and 3) a failure of law enforcement to crack down on speeding.

The largest portion of the increase can be explained by that increase in the number of miles Americans spent driving, said the NSC's president. 2012's mild winter, combined with some improvement in the overall economy, are the likely reasons more drivers were on the road. The higher the number of miles driven, the greater the likelihood of crashes.

NHTSA estimates that around 18 percent of all traffic accidents with injuries are caused by distracted driving. According to the NSC, approximately a third of fatal accidents involved speeding. Both need to be addressed, but the NSC's president is concerned about the dwindling resources available for speed enforcement. When funds become available, many state and local governments tend to prioritize violent crime policing instead of traffic enforcement, he says.

The NSC also estimated the total amount of money lost to motor vehicle accidents with property damage, injuries or deaths in 2012. The result was a staggering $276.6 billion.

Fatal accidents cost far more than money, of course. To those who lose loved ones in motor vehicle accidents, safety initiatives and government statistics don't mean very much. Each individual lost to a fatal wreck is an irretrievable loss to the survivors.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Crash-related deaths up for the first time since 2005, report says," David Undercoffler, Feb. 20, 2013

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