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Downside of Upside: Deaths on U.S. Roads Rise as Economy Improves

After years of decline, the number of deaths on U.S. roads is heading higher. If the trend continues, the toll could hit an eight-year high.

After years of decline, the number of deaths on U.S. roads is heading higher. If the trend continues, the U.S. could see the roadway death toll rise to its highest level since 2007, according to the National Safety Council.

The financial impact of traffic accidents, which factors in deaths, injuries and property damage, has also risen sharply, reports the NSC, climbing by 24 percent to $152 billion during the first half of this year compared to 2014.

“Follow the numbers: the trend we are seeing on our roadways is like a flashing red light – danger lies ahead,” Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, said in a news release.

The NSC had previously noting that traffic deaths began rising in late 2014, and Monday’s report indicated the trend carried over into the new year.

Now, the nonprofit organization reports, a total of nearly 19,000 people were killed in traffic crashes across the country during the first half of 2015, while more than 2.2 million were seriously injured. If that pace holds during the second half, it would result in the deadliest year on U.S. roadways since 2007, when 41,259 people died on the nation’s roads.

It’s not clear why the death toll has started to rise after years of generally steady decline. The NSC believes two factors are having a particularly strong influence: lower gas prices and an improving economy.

“This generally means an increase in traffic; more people can afford to drive, and many travel longer distances and take vacations,” the organization said in a news release.

Other safety experts say the death toll would be even higher were it not for the addition of new, high-tech equipment, such as electronic stability control, on today’s vehicles. A crackdown on drinking and driving has also helped, as have laws that mandate seatbelt usage.

Even with the latest, upward trend, the U.S. highway death toll is down almost 40 percent from its peak four decades ago.

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That said, there is “no way our country should tolerate 32,917 people dying on our roadways,” Mark Rosekind, the new head of federal traffic safety enforcement declared during a visit to Detroit last month. That was the figure for 2013, the last year for which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has complete numbers.

The NSC’s Hersman said the best step to reduce the toll is to “be a defensive driver and make safe decisions behind the wheel. Your life really depends on it.”

Among the NSC’s key recommendations:

  • Make sure every passenger buckles up on every trip;
  • Designate an alcohol- and drug-free driver or arrange alternate transportation when partying;
  • Get plenty of sleep and take regular breaks to avoid fatigue;
  • Never use a cell phone behind the wheel, even hands-free; or text while driving;
  • Stay engaged in teens’ driving habits. Teens are three times as likely to crash as more experienced drivers;
  • Learn how to properly use your cars safety features.

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