The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued some very early traffic fatality stats for 2015, and we hate to break it to you, but they don't look so good. In fact, they're pretty darned depressing.
Official numbers for 2015 won't be available for a while -- likely, the end of 2016, after data has gathered from every corner of the country and sorted for accuracy. But as you can see from the chart above, preliminary figures for the first three months of 2015 show around 7,500 deaths, significantly higher than last year's estimated 6,850. (Final numbers from 2014 should be published around December.)
You might think that the increase is due to America's generally strong economy. More people employed means more commuters, which means more auto accidents and deaths, right?
Yes, and no.
The roads are busier, that's true. In fact, during the first quarter of the year, Americans put around 9.8 billion miles on their odometers. However, that's just 3.8 percent above the first three months of 2014. If traffic volume were solely to blame for the rise in fatalities, you'd expect the number of deaths to tick up 3.8 percent, too. But in fact, they're up 9.5 percent.
As a result, the fatality rate is also up. Last year, the U.S. had 0.99 roadway deaths per million miles driven. According to NHTSA, the first quarter of 2015 had a rate of 1.04 deaths per million miles.
The good news is, that's far below the rate recorded ten years ago, which was 1.32 in the first quarter of 2005. It's even below the sharp uptick seen in 2012, which was 1.08 deaths per million miles traveled.
The bad news is, the rise counters some of the important gains we've made in auto safety over the past decade. Fatalities and the fatality rate have both dropped in recent years, with very few exceptions. Apart from 2012, the U.S. had continued to make improvements, even as the economy has put workers back on the road.
Why the increase? NHTSA hasn't offered any analysis off its figures because the data is so raw and unverified. (Plus, as a federal agency, NHTSA tends to be cautious on these matters.) However, based on what we've seen in previous years, it may not be due to an uptick in drunk driving accidents. On the whole, drunk driving fatalities have tended to remain flat or decline, year over year.
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Our own hunches say that this may be due to an increase in pedestrian deaths (not surprising, given the rate that our cities are growing) and fatalities linked to distracted driving. It could also be due to America's crumbling infrastructure, which is taking a toll on our vehicles, our travel times, and, according to some analysts, our lives. It might even be due to improvements in data recording and reporting.
Got any ideas of your own? Share 'em in the comments below. You can skim through NHTSA's preliminary report by clicking here.