WASHINGTON — The number of people killed in traffic crashes climbed to 36,432 in the first six months of the year, a nearly 18 percent increase from the same period in 2017. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the situation is expected to get worse during the winter months.
The first half of the year is historically the busiest time for crashes in the United States, in part because most people are traveling during that time. But the increase this year is being driven more by a deliberate shift in traffic behavior and decreased enforcement of states’ traffic laws, NHTSA said. The traffic deaths are at an eight-year high.
The warning was released Wednesday, along with NHTSA’s latest casualty figures from the first half of the year. The overall rate of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled also rose to 0.139 in the first half of the year, NHTSA said. The previous record was 0.133, reached in 2006.
Accidents are “extremely dangerous” to pedestrians, cyclists and all motorists, said Julie Kushner, NHTSA’s acting administrator. “As we approach the summer months and more people will be on the road, we need to make sure our resources are focused on focusing on the root cause of crashes, which is driver inattention and fatigue.”
States with the largest increases in traffic deaths over the first half of this year were Virginia, up more than 37 percent; Iowa, up almost 28 percent; and Kentucky, up nearly 24 percent.
The biggest declines were in Virginia, down more than 16 percent; and California, down 15 percent.
NHTSA said that 10 states, led by Washington, D.C., had year-to-date traffic fatality totals that fell below the 10-year average.
Some states have seen increases in accidents even as other states see declines, NHTSA said. Part of the reason may be due to legislative efforts to curb texting and driving. In Vermont, for example, a 2015 law made electronic talking or text messaging a primary offense, meaning officers could pull over drivers for the offense without even having to see the driver make a violation. Police immediately write tickets for failing to keep right.
In 2015, NHTSA said it prosecuted a quarter of all fines issued in the state on texting-related issues. Now, it’s more like half.
But some states don’t focus on texting and driving. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 22 states do not have laws prohibiting drivers under the age of 21 from using mobile devices to text, email or email. In 2016, there were 19 accidents involving a 16-year-old driver as a result of texting, the NCSL reports.
States also have laws that prohibit people from using a handheld cellphone behind the wheel, but they can still talk on a hands-free cellphone with another person behind the wheel. Some states allow texting while the car is stopped at a red light or stop sign.
NHTSA said there were 40 traffic safety groups in 2016, the most ever. But it called for funding at the state level. “The data clearly show that a lot of distracted driving is committed by people not pulling over and not getting a ticket,” Kushner said. “There is simply not enough money out there to enforce these laws.”
NHTSA estimates that the state law enforcement agencies that enforce traffic laws collect about $8 billion in revenue a year, a money source that has recently been called into question after several fatal police-involved shootings.
Research shows that citations are often considered ineffective by motorists and driving behavior falls after they become too expensive. NHTSA now gives states $50 for every drunk-driving ticket that a driver pleads guilty to.
National Action Alliance: A coalition of 65 organizations promoting safer driving for all commuters, drivers and cyclists, including AAA, League of Women Voters, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, IIHS, the CHAPTER NOISES and more.