DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm David Schaper in Chicago, where that cheap gas that Jeff talked about and a stronger economy are putting a lot more cars and trucks on the road. I'm sitting in my car on Lake Shore Drive, and traffic is bumper-to-bumper, barely moving at all. New government figures show that more vehicles plus more people driving more often all adds up to more crashes. And highways like this one are getting a lot more dangerous.
MARK ROSEKIND: This was both tragic and alarming for us.
SCHAPER: Mark Rosekind heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It released data this week showing that more than 35,000 people were killed on the nation's roads last year, reversing what had been a promising trend.
ROSEKIND: Over 10 years, we had seen a 25-percent drop in the number of lives lost on our roadways. And then, in 2015, we saw a 7.5-percent increase, the largest percent increase in 50 years.
SCHAPER: That's almost 100 traffic fatalities every day. And according to preliminary figures compiled by the National Safety Council, that troubling trend continues into 2016.
DEBORAH HERSMAN: For the first six months of this year, we're seeing a 9-percent increase over the first six-month period of last year. That means 19,000 people have died on our roadways already.
SCHAPER: Debbie Hersman of the National Safety Council says part of the rise in traffic fatalities is due to greater traffic volumes. Federal government statistics show the number of vehicle miles traveled rose more than 3 percent last year.
HERSMAN: But that doesn't really explain the whole story.
SCHAPER: Hersman notes that the sudden spike in traffic fatalities comes as vehicles and our roadways are being designed to be safer. What's not becoming safer, she says, is human behavior.
HERSMAN: I think every driver and even every pedestrian probably sees things that makes their toes curl.
SCHAPER: Things like drivers texting, taking selfies, checking in on social media, reading emails, distracting themselves in all kinds of ways.
HERSMAN: I would say that distracted driving is definitely the drunk-driving epidemic of today.
SCHAPER: Hersman says even technologies and features that are hands-free are not risk-free. Asking Siri for directions, for example, can be almost as distracting as looking at a map. And phone conversations, whether putting the phone up to your ear or not, can distract drivers.
HERSMAN: It's not your hand that's holding the phone that's distracted. It's your brain. If it was your hand, we would have outlawed stick shift cars a long time ago.
SCHAPER: Hersman says one of the problems is that distracted driving hasn't become as socially unacceptable as, say, drunk driving. Penalties are not too severe, so there's not much of a deterrent. And it's not just these new high-tech distractions causing this jump in fatalities, according to National Highway Traffic Safety administrator Mark Rosekind.
ROSEKIND: We have some classic, literally old problems related to wearing seat belts and speeding, impaired driving, related to drunk driving, drug driving, drowsy driving, distracted driving.
SCHAPER: For example, half of those killed in traffic accidents last year were not wearing seatbelts. A third of traffic fatalities involve intoxicated motorists. And many states have raised highway speed limits to 70, 75 and even 80 miles an hour. Rosekind says traffic fatalities have gone up with them.
ROSEKIND: We have to find new solutions to old problems. We've got to find new innovations. And one of the biggest areas for focus is on new kinds of automated vehicle technology.
SCHAPER: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 10,000 lives could be saved every year by implementing just four new technologies - automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings, blind spot monitors and adaptive headlights. All are gradually being added to most new vehicles. But Rosekind says more needs to be done to help override drivers' poor decisions, which he says still cause 94 percent of all traffic fatalities. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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