NC traffic deaths up 19 percent this year

Traffic deaths are up 19 percent in North Carolina so far this year, mirroring a troubling national trend, according to data from the National Safety Council.

A confluence of factors may be to blame: Plunging gas prices and an improving economy are sending more people out on the roads, and for longer trips. And distracted driving continues to be an intransigent problem.

“This could be one of those years where we see a sizable increase in fatality numbers,” said David Harkey, director of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center.

Across the state, 634 people were killed in motor vehicle wrecks in the first six months of 2015, compared with 531 during the same period last year.

The state showed a larger increase in deadly crashes than the nation as a whole. Across the U.S., about 19,000 people died through June, up 14 percent over 2014.

North Carolina’s population growth is a factor.

“We’re certainly seeing a whole lot more people and a lot more miles traveled,” said Christopher Oliver, a traffic safety specialist with the N.C. Department of Transportation.

In addition to encouraging people to spend more time on the road, low gas prices also tend to bring out drivers more prone to crash, such as teen drivers, said National Safety Council CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman.

But Hersman said the increase also likely has to do with the increasing number of distractions – such as cellphones – and rising speed limits.

“As a safety professional, it’s not just disappointing but heartbreaking to see the numbers trending in the wrong direction,” she said.

Raleigh police have not seen an increase in traffic deaths. In crashes investigated by Raleigh police officers, 18 people have died so far this year, compared with 20 during the same period last year.

Traffic death numbers spiked in Raleigh in 2013, when 47 people died. That was the only year since 2008 that the number exceeded 34.

Despite the increase in traffic deaths this year, Harkey of the Highway Safety Research Center said the historical trend is toward safer roads.

He said year-to-year numbers can be misleading and subject to natural variation. Several decades ago, he said, more than 50,000 people were killed each year on the roadways. For the past few years, the number has been in the mid-30,000s. He said he did not quibble with the National Safety Council’s numbers but stressed the importance of looking at the overall trend.

“Vehicles get safer; the way we design roadways gets safer,” Harkey said. “Those numbers in general, they get better.”

News & Observer reporter Bruce Siceloff and the Associated Press contributed.

Andrew Dunn: 704-358-5235