The figures aren't yet official, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's early estimates suggest that 35,200 motorists, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians died on U.S. roads in 2015--an increase of 7.7 percent over 2014.
That's a remarkable uptick. In fact, the last time the U.S. saw such a sharp increase in auto-related deaths was in 1964, well before the auto safety revolution sparked a long, slow downward trend in fatalities. In terms of the raw number of deaths, the U.S. hasn't recorded such a high number since 2008, when 37,423 people died on our highways and byways (though it's worth noting that that was an 11 percent drop from 2007).
Final fatality figures will be released later in the year, as will some guesses about why the numbers rose so dramatically. One of those guesses will likely involve low gas prices and the improving U.S. economy, which have led to an increase in the number of cars on the road and miles traveled. Projections show that Americans drove 107.2 billion miles last year, 3.5 percent more than in 2014.
However, as NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind explains, fuel and finances aren't the only reason for the increase:
"As the economy has improved and gas prices have fallen, more Americans are driving more miles. But that only explains part of the increase. Ninety-four percent of crashes can be tied back to a human choice or error, so we know we need to focus our efforts on improving human behavior while promoting vehicle technology that not only protects people in crashes, but helps prevent crashes in the first place."
Given statements like that, it's probably not surprising that the Department of Transportation is continuing to push automakers to adopt new technology to cut the number of crashes. As you might recall, 20 companies promised to make automated braking standard on new vehicles by the year 2022. Other technologies, including fully autonomous driving systems, are on the agency's watch list, too.
NHTSA and the DOT are also continuing to support programs that alter motorists' bad behavior, like drunk driving and distracted driving. Initiatives to protect cyclists and pedestrians are part of the safety mix, too.
Those programs are definitely needed. NHTSA's early estimates show that the biggest areas for improvement center on cyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists, who saw fatalities climb 13 percent, 10 percent, and 9 percent, respectively. Crashes involving young drivers also increased by 10 percent over 2014.
Of NHTSA's ten U.S. regions, nine recorded fatality increases in 2015. The biggest gains were in the Northwest (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington) and the Southeast (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee), which rose 20 percent and 14 percent, respectively. The region that includes Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas was the only one to see a decline, though at 1 percent, the dip was fairly minor.
Stay tuned for NHTSA's final fatality stats from 2015, which should be released in late November or early December.