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U.S. traffic fatalities up 7.2 percent in 2015, the biggest increase since 1966

The DOT is asking for help to find ways to stop the increase in traffic deaths. In 2015, 35,902 people in the United States died in traffic accidents. Deaths from crashes overall have been decreasing for 50 years, but last year there were 7.2 percent more traffic fatalities than 2014, according to Reuters.

The good news is traffic deaths occur much less often per mile traveled than 50 years ago. In 1966, 51,000 people died on U.S. roads, an increase of 8.1 percent over 1965. That number of deaths per mile driven was five times the number who died in 2015. Last year’s rate of increase, however, was the greatest since 1966, which was two years before seat belts became mandatory standard equipment in new cars.

Related: Uber is not decreasing drunk driving deaths, according to study

Seat belts are still a major factor in traffic deaths. Half of the vehicle occupants who died in traffic accidents in 2015 were not wearing seat belts. Nearly one-third of the fatal accidents involved speeding or drunk driving, according to the Department of Transportation. Another disturbing element is that, in 10 percent of the fatalities, distracted driving was cited as a contributing factor.

“Distracted driving” is often assumed to be cellphone use or texting, but when cited by police it can refer to a wide range of activities — basically anything that takes the driver’s attention away from driving. Other common distractions include eating, leaning down to pick something off the floor, turning around to talk to kids or other passengers, or checking email.

Vehicle miles traveled in 2015 rose 3.5 percent from 2014, which researchers attributed both to increased jobs and lower gas prices. That travel increase was the highest in 25 years, but the rate of increase in fatalities was even greater.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx reached out for assistance. “Solving this problem will take teamwork,” he said, “so we’re issuing a call to action and asking researchers, safety experts, data scientists, and the public to analyze the fatality data and help find ways to prevent these tragedies.”