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US traffic fatalities rose slightly last year, but don't panic just yet

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Traffic fatalities in the US, for the first nine months of 2015, rose 9.3 percent from the year prior. It's an increase of roughly 2,200 though these are still statistical projections and the numbers could change.

More traffic deaths are definitely bad, but the total number of fatalities is only one part of the story. The important number is the amount of traffic deaths per mile driven. If people are driving more miles, it's natural that traffic accidents (and then fatalities) would increase as well, as long as technology and behavior remain the same.

And, unsurprisingly, traffic deaths per vehicle mile rose as well, from 1.05 per 100 million vehicle miles for the first nine months of 2014 up to 1.10 for the first nine months of 2015, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That's about a 5 percent increase — still bad, but not nearly as bad as the 9.3 percent rise in total fatalities.

With the rise in fatalities this year, government highway agencies and safety organizations are holding conferences to figure out what must be done. But here's the cynical view: DOT, like other government agencies, needs to make the case for bigger budgets — and a safety concern can play into that. So while a rise in fatalities is never a good thing, overall the situation looks pretty good, regardless of the doom-and-gloom that you might see from your local highway department.

Traffic Fatalities Chart

Cars are much safer these days than they have been in years. Total traffic fatalities are down significantly from 10 years ago, and the decline gets even more significant if you go back further. In 2005, we saw traffic fatalities reach 1.43 per 100 million vehicle miles, well above what we're seeing these days. By any measure, cars — and the people who ride in them — are safer than they've ever been, even with this slight uptick in fatalities.

no obvious cause for the jump

There's no single obvious cause for the rise in fatalities in 2015 — though this is still preliminary data, there hasn't been a significant jump in drunk driving or a drop in seat belt use. There are lots of theories, mostly related to distracted driving, including talking on phones or texting while driving, as well as more motorcyclists choosing to ride sans helmet.

Riding in cars has gotten significantly safer over the past 20 years, and, even with a slight uptick last year, we can see on the chart above that the overall trend is drifting lower. Still, if you don’t want to die, use some common sense: wear your seat belt, don't drink and drive, or text and drive.