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It's not just miles traveled: Something else causes rising U.S vehicle deaths

Federal officials are looking to the private sector for help understanding the continued rise in motor vehicle fatality rates. For the second year in a row, deaths from vehicle crashes are rising, even accounting for more vehicle miles, according to CNN.  Full-year figures for 2016 won’t be available until late March, but the first nine months indicate the troublesome trend is continuing.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported the largest gain in vehicle fatalities in 50 years, with an increase of 7.2 percent for the entire year. In 2016, comparing the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Traffic Safety Facts: Crash Stats report for first nine months to 2016 to the same months in 2015, fatalities have gone up another eight percent. In 2015, there were 25,808 fatalities January through September and in the same months in 2016, the number rose to 27,875.

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

The numbers are rising each quarter. The third quarter of 2016 was the eighth consecutive period with increased fatalities compared to the same quarters in the previous year.

The first thought many have is that due to the improving economy U.S. drivers are traveling more. Miles traveled in the nine-month period went up by 70 billion and that number could be a contributing factor but doesn’t account for the entire increase. Citing preliminary figures from the Federal Highway Administration, total vehicle miles traveled January through September in 2016 were up about three percent.

During the recent recession, miles traveled dropped and fatality rates were at all-time lows. With low gas prices and a better economy, more miles with a concomitant rise in deaths were expected, but not to the degree that occurred. NHTSA analysis of the 2015 data showed much of the increase that year involved fatalities of pedestrians and cyclists — both motor- and pedal-powered.

Other possible explanations for vehicle crash fatality increases include warmer weather, distracted drivers, and possibly a relationship with the legalization of marijuana in some states. A Washington state study showed a large increase in traffic fatality victims with marijuana in their systems, CNN reported. Inconsistent crash victim drug testing in different states makes it difficult to be sure about a connection with marijuana or other drug use and the overall increase in traffic deaths.

The DOT is reaching out, looking for information and analysis. Dan Morgan, the DOT chief data officer, said, “We hope we can find some data sources out there in the private sector that can help us understand what’s happening on our roads.”