In its “Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities in 2012” report, the federal government reported (from preliminary figures) that U.S. highway deaths rose 5.3 percent in 2012, to 34,080.
The improvement in economic conditions could be part of it. Yet the 0.3-percent rise in overall vehicle miles traveled this past year doesn't come close to accounting for that.
Up to 2011, full-year fatality totals have dropped nearly 26 percent, or 11,143, versus their last peak, in 2005, of 43,510. During that same period the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) dropped from 1.46 to 1.10. This past year, based on these preliminary figures, it rose to 1.16.
Driver distraction and the use of smartphones while driving—whether with the handset or through ever-evolving connected vehicle interfaces—are another potential factor.
Also of interest is that the hike in road fatalities appeared to be regionalized, with the Northeast (Maine and the New England states) seeing more than a 15-percent hike in fatalities overall. California saw a nine percent rise, while the Southern region was up ten percent in fatalities. On the other hand, Northwestern states saw a one percent drop in fatalities.