Traffic deaths up nearly 10% -- driver behavior blamed

Safety advocates say federal regulators need to do much more to reduce fatalities

For years, traffic deaths have been declining steadily as cars become more crashworthy and enforcement of drunken driving laws have been ramped up. But that all came to a screeching halt last year, with traffic deaths showing a steep 9.3% increase in the first nine months of 2015.

NHTSA estimates that more than 26,000 people died in traffic crashes in the first nine months of 2015, compared to the 23,796 fatalities in the first nine months of 2014. U.S. regions nationwide showed increases ranging from 2% to 20%, and federal safety regulators blame driver behavior. 

“It’s time to drive behavioral changes in traffic safety and that means taking on new initiatives and addressing persistent issues like drunk driving and failure to wear seat belts,” said Dr. Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Could do more

But safety advocates say the NHTSA and other federal agencies could be doing much more to reduce the toll of highway deaths and injuries. 

One group, AnnaLeaha and Mary for Truck Safety, is promoting a petition asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to declare a Vision Zero policy aimed at reducing traffic fatalities to zero. The group says it has gathered nearly 16,000 signatures so far and plans to present them to the department at a meeting on March 4.

The organization is named for two sisters, AnnaLeaha and Mary Karth, who died when their car was hit by a semi-trailer truck in May 2013 during a traffic back-up on a Georgia highway. The family alleges the truck driver had been behind the wheel for too many hours when he struck their car, which ended up beneath the trailer of the truck, which the family says did not have adequate "underride" protection.

In December, the NHTSA proposed tougher underride regulations that would require stronger rear-impact guards on trailers and semi-trailers to keep cars from ending up under trailers, a circumstance that often causes death by decapitation.

While laudable, the proposal came decades after safety advocates had begun asking for it. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) had been asking the NHTSA for a stronger underride standard since 2001, after testing bars on trailers built by three companies to federal standards. Cars with crash-test dummies slammed into the bars, which buckled or broke in several tests. The trailers often broke through the windshields.

50 years

The NHTSA's parent agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, is currently marking its 50th anniversary and has been spending taxpayer money to congratulate itself for its safety efforts, even though the NHTSA receives only 2% of the department's annual budget. Critics say the NHTSA is notoriously slow to identify safety defects and act on them, as demonstrated by the years that went by before fire-prone Jeep Cherokees were finally recalled.

Safety advocates note that 2 million Americans have lost their lives in traffic accidents during the 50 years that Transportation Department has been in charge of highway safety.

"Crash victims might judge their record differently in light of the enormous number of tragedies they presided over and did not prevent," said Louis Lombardo of Care for Crash Victims.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says he recognizes the unexpected spike in 2015 deaths is a signal that more needs to be done. His department is holding a series of "safety summits" beginning today in Sacramento, hoping the summits will "provide us with new approaches to add to the tried-and-true tactics that we know save lives.”

Foxx says it's clear that "unsafe behaviors and human choices ... contribute to increasing traffic deaths on a national scale." He quotes the NHTSA research as showing that human factors contribute to 94% of crashes.

Red flags

“We’re seeing red flags across the U.S. and we’re not waiting for the situation to develop further,” said Dr. Mark Rosekind, NHTSA Administrator. “It’s time to drive behavioral changes in traffic safety and that means taking on new initiatives and addressing persistent issues like drunk driving and failure to wear seat belts.”

Rosekind notes the estimated 2015 increase in highway deaths follows years of steady, gradual declines. Traffic deaths declined 1.2% in 2014 and more than 22% from 2000 to 2014.

The safety summits will address drunk, drugged, distracted, and drowsy driving; speeding; failure to use safety features such as seat belts and child seats; and new initiatives to protect vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, NHTSA said.

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