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Traffic fatality rates are climbing after years of decline

The safety of road travel in the United States has been improving for decades. Between 2000 and 2014, for instance, annual traffic fatalities declined by 22 percent. That is real, measurable progress.

Unfortunately, preliminary numbers from 2015 suggest that the trend is quickly reversing. In the first nine months of 2015, the rate of traffic fatalities in the U.S. increased 9.3 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier. In human terms, 2015 saw an estimated 26,000 car accident deaths in less than a year.

According to a press release from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, regulators are very concerned by these statistics. In response, the NHTSA is holding a series of regional summits to discuss mitigation strategies and address the human factors underlying many fatal crashes. These include drunk driving, distracted driving, drowsy driving, speeding, failing to wear a seat belt and failure to use child seats. The agency also wants to address ways to increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

The first summit was held earlier this month in California's capitol. Commenting on the effort, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted that “For decades, U.S. DOT has been driving safety improvements on our roads, and those efforts have resulted in a steady decline in highway deaths. But the apparent increase in 2015 is a signal that we need to do more. The safety summits that NHTSA is kicking off today in Sacramento will provide us with new approaches to add to the tried-and-true tactics that we know save lives.”

Observers may have noticed that this increasing concern about human driving behavior comes at a time when autonomous vehicles could soon become a reality. It will be interesting to find out whether dangerous driver choices will hasten the adoption of self-driving vehicles.

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