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After years of improvement, crash data takes a deadly turn

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regularly collects and analyzes crash data, including the number of fatalities, severity of injuries and cause of the accident. For many years now, the agency has released even preliminary data with some fanfare, because the number of fatal crashes has been on a steady decline. So much so, in fact, that 2014 showed the lowest number of fatalities ever reported.

Officials were troubled, then, when they looked at the recently compiled preliminary data for the first six months of 2015. The number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents on American roads not only increased, but increased by 8.1 percent.

If there is good news, it is that our numbers were not the worst. Region 2 -- Pennsylvania, New York and Puerto Rico -- showed a 4 percent increase over the first half of 2014. Southeastern and Great Lakes states reported 15 percent and 16 percent increases, respectively.

Data for the individual states is not yet available, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's crash data covers through 2014, with no 2015 results. We cannot say, then, whether Pennsylvania bucked the national trend.

The state was, however, in sync with the national decline from 2013 to 2014: PennDOT reported a drop from 1,117 fatal accidents in 2013 to 1,107 in 2014. Lehigh County was not as fortunate: With 27 fatal crashes in 2013, the county logged 35 in 2014 -- nearly a 30 percent increase.

There may be some explanation for the nationwide increase. The report notes that the number of miles driven increased from the first half of 2014 to the first half of this year by about 3.5 percent. And, fuel prices dropped and employment increased during the same time period. Leisure travel was up this year, too. With more vehicles on the road, there was a greater risk of an accident.

Unfortunately, the data does not support the hypothesis. The fatality rate -- number of fatalities per million vehicle-miles driven -- increased as well.

The NHTSA has a firmer handle on the most common reasons people die in car accidents. Nearly 50 percent of the people killed in car accidents are not wearing seatbelts. Drunk drivers account for another 30 percent of all fatalities.

Source: Insurance Journal, "Highway Death Toll Takes Troubling Turn: Up 8.1% This Year," Jeff Plungis, Nov. 25, 2015

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