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What's Driving Up the Number Of Deaths By Car Accidents?


The number of Americans killed on our roads has increased sharply in the first six months of 2016 after decades of decline. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that fatalities went up by 10.4 percent. Of course, that means thousands of lives. We're joined now by Mark Rosekind, who is the administrator of the NHTSA. Thanks very much for being with us.

MARK ROSEKIND: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: Why the increase, do you think?

ROSEKIND: That's always the first question that everybody asks. And we first saw in 2015 the largest increase, 7.2 percent, the largest percent increase in 50 years. So what we do know so far is, at least in 2015, the increase we saw was partly due to some things like high number of vehicle miles traveled. The economy was better. Gas prices are low. More people are working. That might account for about half of what we've seen.

The other half is mostly us as humans, choices or errors we make. So it's impairment, it's speeding, it's not wearing your seatbelt, drunk driving, drowsy driving. Those things remain the same old problems we've been dealing with for a long time.

SIMON: What about distracted driving? Aren't there a lot more gizmos in the car?

ROSEKIND: Absolutely, and we know distraction is very significant. The more and more technology that we get offers tremendous value to potentially help save these lives. But there's also the potential to bring more things into the car that could distract us, as well.

SIMON: How many deaths are caused by human error?

ROSEKIND: Ninety-four percent of crashes are related to the human. So...

SIMON: That's overwhelming, obviously.

ROSEKIND: Yes. And, you know, everybody's focused on defects and recalls, the Takata airbag recall, which has 70 million vehicles, you know? But it ends up only 2 percent of crashes are related to those kinds of defects. Ninety-four percent are the kind of choices we make that are creating these crashes.

SIMON: Mr. Rosekind, I'm told you lost your father to a traffic fatality.

ROSEKIND: That's correct. He was a San Francisco police officer killed in the line of duty. He was actually chasing a traffic violator and somebody ran a red light and hit him, killed instantly.

SIMON: I'm very sorry.

ROSEKIND: Thank you. I was 3 and a half. My brother was 2. And though I've lived with that my whole life, actually being in this position, I've probably talked more about it than I ever have in my life because it means I understand personally what this kind of tragedy means when people lose loved ones.

SIMON: Mark Rosekind of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROSEKIND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 11, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
A Web intro to this story incorrectly referred to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. It is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
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