Traffic deaths on U.S. roads fell slightly in 2017 after two straight years of big increases, but a leading safety organization that compiled the numbers says it's no cause for celebration.
The National Safety Council on Thursday estimated that 40,100 people were killed in traffic crashes last year, down just under 1 percent from the 2016 total of 40,327. The group said it's too early to tell whether the small decline means a downward trend after a two-year spike in deaths that was blamed largely on people driving more miles as the economy improved as well as an increase in distracted driving.
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"We're treading water, essentially," said council spokeswoman Maureen Vogel. "We're not making progress. This is the second year in a row we're seeing over 40,000 people killed in this country on the roadways."
Fatalities rose 7 percent in 2016, on top of a 7 percent increase from 2014 to 2015, the steepest two-year increase in over 50 years, according to the council, which gets its data from states. Prior to 2016, annual deaths had not hit 40,000 since 2007, the year before the economy tanked.
Motor-vehicle injuries in 2017 also fell 1 percent to an estimated 4.57 million, and the estimated cost of vehicle deaths, injuries and property damage was estimated at $413.8 billion, also down 1 percent. The number of miles driven last year by Americans grew only 1 percent, easing back from the 3 percent increase in 2016. An estimated 1.25 deaths occurred per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, the council said. That's 2 percent lower than the 2016 rate.
Traffic deaths began dropping in 2008 and reached their lowest point in six decades in 2011 at 32,000. They fluctuated slightly over the next two years, but started climbing in the last quarter of 2014.
Experts say as the economy recovered, people began driving more, and they also increased riskier behavior such as going out on weekends or taking longer trips on unfamiliar roads. Teens, who have the highest fatal crash rates, also started driving more after the recession, during which many couldn't afford to travel.
The council's fatality estimates differ slightly from those of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The government counts only deaths that occur on public roads, while the council includes fatalities that occur in parking lots, driveways and private roads.