A troubling trend in California traffic fatalities

The preliminary data points to a very significant increase in both the total number of highway deaths and the rate of those deaths

In the last decade or so, one of the most encouraging traffic safety trends has been the reduction in overall deaths on the nation's highways. In addition to a reduction in the total number of deaths, there was also a significant drop in the number of deaths per vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

In 2010, the nation saw the fewest highway traffic deaths since 1949, when those statistics were first compiled. In 2011, the number of highway deaths fell even lower, to 32,479. This trend was viewed as the result of the development of safer cars, roads and attempts to discourage dangerous driving behavior, such as drunken driving.

Downward trend ends in 2015

The compiling of these statistics takes time, coming from thousands of sources throughout the country, but according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the good news ended in 2015.

Their preliminary numbers show an alarming increase in the first nine months of 2015 of 9.3 percent from the previous year. The magnitude of that change is demonstrated by the fact that that increase would be the largest single-year increase since 1946.

This has been attributed to the increase in the number of miles driven and is presumably related to the fall in gasoline prices over the last year. Americans are more willing to drive more miles as gas prices become less expensive and it appears that those extra miles driven have had a disproportionate effect on the number of fatalities related to motor vehicle crashes.

This trend of increasing fatalities and fatality rate is worrying because it has been sustained for two straight years, which suggests it is not merely anomalous quarter or two. It appears that small increases in additional driving cause much larger increases in highway deaths, although the reasons for this are not clear.

Is it texting?

Distracted driving caused by texting is still perceived to be a major problem for drivers, but texting as an activity is increasing less rapidly today against the background of increasing fatalities than it was in previous years when the number of deaths was declining.

A significant problem with texting is we lack solid data as to its link with traffic crashes. The official NHTSA numbers indicate that in 2012, 3,328 drivers died in crashes involving a distracted driver.

However, the data is uncertain, as tracking texting-related crashes is still difficult. In some crashes, it may be unclear whether texting was a factor. Most drivers are unwilling to admit to texting if they survive and in fatal accidents, other causes may be seemingly more obvious and may be what the officer writes down on the incident report.

Regulators focused on driver behavior

NHTSA is pushing hard to reduce behavioral factors, such as distraction, drunk driving, speeding, drowsy driving, and failure to use seat belts. There is also hope that some new technologies will help to counteract this growth in fatalities.

Traffic crashes extract a staggering toll in deaths and injuries on the nation. In California, in 2013, 3,104 died in crashes and 223,218 were injured. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the cost of those crashes that year at $4.48 billion. Sadly, the vast majority of these crashes are preventable and due to negligence by drivers.

If the trend is confirmed for 2015, it is likely that with continued cheap gas, the death toll will continue to rise in 2016. The salvation promised by self-driving vehicles is likely still many years away. Drivers need to recognize the importance driving responsibly, as their life and the lives of every driver they encounter depend on it.