RALEIGH — In a possible sign that the economy is getting better, traffic fatalities in North Carolina are on the rise after falling off sharply during the 2008 recession.
The number of people who died in traffic accidents in the state rose 5.5 percent in 2012, to 1,292, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those deaths, 402 were the result of accidents involving alcohol, up 12 percent from the year before.
The upward numbers mirror the national trend; after six years of decline, the number of highway deaths nationwide rose 3.3 percent last year, to 33,561.
Traffic fatalities have generally been falling since the 1960s, said David Harkey, director of the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina, but they tend to rise and fall with the economy.
“You can look at every recession that we’ve had during that course of time, and there’s always much sharper decline in the number of fatalities and fatality rates during those periods,” Harkey said. “But every time we come out of a recession, you see what you are starting to see now.”
Highway fatalities drop during a recession because drivers clock fewer miles driving for work or pleasure, said Nagui Rouphail, professor of civil engineering at N.C. State University. Fewer vehicle miles traveled or VMT, Rouphail said, leads to less opportunity for accidents, or “lower exposure.”
But as the economy recovers, drivers rack up more miles.
“Our VMT has begun to creep up to pre-recession levels,” Rouphail said. “My expectation is as long as the trend in increased exposure will continue, the only thing to decrease fatalities in any manner is an increase in vehicle safety, decrease in driver distraction.”
Driving has become safer, as shown by the vehicle fatality rate, measured by the government as the number of fatalities for every 100 million miles driven. The rate dropped steadily in North Carolina and nationwide even as the overall number of deaths remained steady or rose slightly before the recession. In North Carolina, 1.2 people died per 100 million miles traveled in the state in 2011, the latest year available, down from 1.7 in 2002.
Harkey said he expects the fatality rate will continue to decline and that the overall number of highway deaths won’t rebound to pre-recession levels.
“The reason is that we continue to make advances in vehicle technologies that makes it more survivable in a crash,” he said.
One technological improvement Harkey cites is electronic stability control systems, now federally mandated on many vehicles. The systems sense slippage in tires and adjust brake pressure for each individual tire, helping to keep cars from skidding on wet or icy roads.
Better roads and increased use of seat belts and child safety seats also help, Harkey said.
“As long as we continue to make vehicle technology advances, improve policy for passengers, and improve our roadways, we will continue to drive down the number of fatalities and the fatality rate,” he said.