Traffic deaths reach highest level in nearly a decade

Traffic deaths reach highest level in nearly a decade
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A total of 40,200 people died on U.S. roads in 2016, the highest level in almost a decade, according to preliminary estimates from the National Safety Council (NSC).

The number of traffic fatalities last year represents a 6 percent increase over 2015 and a 14 percent increase over 2014 — the sharpest two-year escalation in more than 50 years, the safety group said.

The NSC draws its data from the states and the report could differ from final federal estimates. Still, safety advocates say the early data represents an alarming trend.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has already announced that road deaths spiked 8 percent in the first three quarters of 2016.

The uptick has largely been driven by an improved economy, lower gas prices and more miles traveled. Safety advocates also point to distracted driving, drunken or drugged driving and cellphone use behind the wheel.

"Our complacency is killing us. Americans believe there is nothing we can do to stop crashes from happening, but that isn't true," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the NSC. "The U.S. lags the rest of the developed world in addressing highway fatalities. We know what needs to be done; we just haven't done it."

The surge in motor vehicle fatalities comes even as more cars are being equipped with crash avoidance technology such as automatic braking, blind spot detection and automatic headlights.

Last year, federal safety officials announced a slew of initiatives — including $1 million in annual grants — aimed at reducing traffic deaths following the historic spike in road fatalities in 2015.

The NSC is also calling for upgrading seatbelt and helmet laws; installing ignition interlocks in the cars of convicted drunk drivers; adopting a three-tier licensing system; and speeding up the development of autonomous technology.