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The most recent crash statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveal a disturbing trend. About 35,200 people died in traffic accidents during 2015. That’s a 7.7% increase in traffic fatalities as compared to 2014, and the deadliest year on American roads since 2008.

Part of the increase is attributable to population growth and an increase in miles traveled. Motor vehicles drove an estimated 107.2 billion miles in 2015, a 3.5% increase over 2014. But deaths per vehicle miles traveled (VMT) grew from 1.08 per 100 million VMT in 2014 to 1.12 per 100 million VMT in 2015. More vehicle driving more miles therefore provides only a partial explanation for the rising traffic death toll.

New Traffic Fatality Statistics

While deaths have risen in every category of traffic accident, the most significant increase (13%) involved collisions with bicycles and other self-powered vehicles. Pedestrian deaths in traffic collisions grew by 10% while motorcycle fatalities increased by 9%.

Driver deaths increased by 6% and passenger deaths grew by 7%. Deaths of occupants in vehicles that rolled over after a collision increased by 5%. Fatal accidents involving large trucks increased by 4%.

Young drivers always have an elevated risk of dying in a car crash. The deaths of drivers between the ages of 15 to 20 increased by 10% in 2015.

The fatal accident rate increase in California was about 6%, slightly less than the national average. The greatest increases were seen in the Northwest (20%) and the Southeast (14%), while the Southwest was the only region that saw a decline in traffic deaths.

Trends and Causes

Fatal traffic accidents increased significantly during the first quarter of 2012, but traffic deaths grew at a much smaller percentage in the following two quarters that year. Traffic deaths began to decline in the last quarter of 2012. That trend generally continued in 2013 and most of 2014. The death rate did not rise significantly until the last quarter of 2014.

According to NHTSA, it is “too early to speculate” about the reason for 2015’s rising death toll. Experts who are more willing to speculate suggest that lower fuel prices and an improving economy are encouraging drivers to log more miles. Those factors may provide a partial explanation for the spike in car crash deaths, but they do not account for the increase in deaths per vehicle mile traveled. Unusually bad weather in some parts of the country during 2015 might also play a role in the rising rate of fatal accidents.

Other experts suggest that drivers have become complacent about public warnings against the dangers of drunk driving and that vehicle occupants might be less inclined to wear seatbelts than they once were. At this point, neither explanation is supported by evidence. Whatever data might eventually arise concerning seatbelts, it will not account for the increase of collisions involving pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.

A more convincing explanation might be that drivers are paying less attention to the road and more attention to cellphones, smartwatches, and other gadgets that command their focus while driving. Drivers who text, tweet, make video calls, or take selfies while driving may account for a large share of 2015’s fatal crashes. According to the National Safety Council, one-in-four fatal traffic accidents involves the use of a cellphone.

Justice Following a Traffic Death

Nothing can bring back a loved one, but negligent drivers who are responsible for a traffic death can be held accountable. California’s wrongful death law allows spouses and other family members of fatal accident victims to recover compensation from negligent drivers.

Compensation includes the lost income that the deceased victim would have provided to surviving family members. That provides the peace of mind that the victim would have wanted his or her family to have.

Compensation also includes the loss of love and companionship that the victim would have provided. No amount of money can measure that loss, but wrongful death compensation sends a message to other drivers about the importance of careful driving. Whether the negligent driver was texting, drinking, or just thinking about something other than the road, compensation for wrongful death increases awareness that careless drivers will be held accountable for the consequences of their negligence.