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Traffic Fatalities Increase Significantly in First Quarter of 2012

A recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that included an early estimate of motor vehicle traffic fatalities for the first quarter of 2012 has indicated a sharp increase in this figure compared with last year’s statistics. The projection estimates that 7,630 people died in motor vehicle accidents between January and March of this year. It comes amid reports from automakers that they are intensifying efforts to build cars that are safer and better-able to reduce the threats of distracted driving.

The NHTSA reports that the rise in fatalities translates to a roughly 13.5% increase from the number reported for the first quarter of 2011, which was 6,720. The NHTSA declined to include in the report any mention of contributing factors or implications of the data. However, a spokesman for the agency said, “It’s too soon to speculate…on any increase in deaths on our roadways.”

Perhaps the most puzzling part of this increase is that previous years all demonstrated a downward trend in roadway fatalities. In addition, many transportation safety officials commented that the figure is generally lowest for the first quarter of any given year, which is in large part due to the winter weather that usually accompanies those months. According to officials, the fact that this year’s winter was much warmer than usual, which meant that there were more drivers on the road than in other past years, could be a factor in the increase in fatalities.

The Automobile Association of America (AAA) has agreed that “warmer-than-average weather” may have been a factor in the increase. According to Jacob Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research, this weather, although “likely not the only factor involved,” could have led to a higher average “vehicle miles traveled and ultimately more fatal crashes” for the quarter. Nelson also noted that the data indicates a great deal of room for improvement in areas such as “limiting distractions, reducing impaired driving and improving a culture of safety among motorists.”

Additionally, in examining the data provided by the NHTSA, it would appear that these first-quarter estimates, if representative of the actual numbers, would indicate the second largest year-to-year quarterly increase since 1975, when the government began recording traffic fatalities. The Federal Highway Administration released data showing that vehicle miles traveled in the first quarter of 2012 went up by about 9.7 billion miles, which is a 1.4% increase from 2011.

As Nelson noted in a written statement, AAA found it “disappointing” to see fatalities rise, especially after the nation experienced a 60-year low in this figure just last year. Apparently, the number of first-quarter roadway deaths had been declining since 2006. The data on traffic fatalities is reportedly obtained from police accident reports, in addition to various other sources.

It will be interesting to see if this year’s first-quarter increase in roadway fatalities was a statistical anomaly primarily based on the warm winter weather, or if there were other factors at play that have in causing this unfortunate jump. As more data comes in over the next two to three years, we should come to a better understanding of these numbers.

U.S. traffic fatalities soar 13.5 percent in first quarter of 2012, CNN, July 23, 2012
Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities for the First Quarter (January–March) of 2012, National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, July 2012

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