Highway fatality spike sparks buzz of worry

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Preliminary data collected by the National Safety Counci lindicates deaths from motor vehicle crashes during the first three months of this year are up 12% compared to the same three months last year – and that’s creating a lot of consternation in various corners of the transportation community.

In raw numbers, an estimated 8,170 traffic deaths occurred from January through March this year compared to 7,270 during the same three-month period 2011.

While the NSC said definitive answers for this significant increase remain elusive to date, the group believes an increased amount of driving due to a relatively warm and uneventful weather as well as a slightly better economic situation might be but two of the reasons. [Speeding might be another.]

“Total miles driven across the nation have been on the rise since December of 2011, which may be a contributor to the increase in fatalities,” noted Janet Froetscher, NSC’s president and CEO.

“We will be keeping a close eye on our monthly traffic fatality estimates to discern if this increase is just a temporary blip due to this year’s mild winter, or if other factors such as the improving economy are contributing to the increased fatalities on our nation’s roads,” she added.

This sudden spike in highway fatalities is surprising for more than a few reasons. One is that fuel prices increased significantly during the very period all this extra driving occurred – a factoid that left me, for one, scratching my head. I mean, aren’t higher fuel prices supposed to help REDUCE the amount of miles being driven in this country? That’s what happened during the last run-up back in 2008.

Another curiosity is that more people are dying in vehicle crashes even as more and more attention is being focused on the issue of “distracted driving.”

Indeed the NSC itself estimates that at least 24% of crashes in 2010 involved drivers using cell phones, including 1.1 million crashes where drivers were talking on cell phones and a minimum of 160,000 crashes where drivers were texting.

Lest we forget, though, while the human loss and suffering due to motor vehicle crashes is horrendous in and of itself, such crashes also present a significant national cost in lost wages and productivity, medical expenses, administrative expenses, employer costs and property damage.

The NSC for one estimated that motor vehicle deaths, injuries and property damage cost the U.S. $255 billion alone in 2011. That’s pretty hefty tab if you ask me.

In the end, staring such numbers in the face means we’ve again to focus on getting drivers to change their ways – meaning the culture of driving itself needs to change as well.

Professional truck drivers know this better than anyone, dealing as they must with all sorts of craziness being committed out on our roadways today. Such change won’t occur overnight – indeed, it might take a generation to achieve a significant shift – but it needs to be done to forestall spikes in highway fatalities and injury rates if the number of miles being driven increases. 

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