US Roadway Deaths Tally Biggest Two-Year Jump in Half a Century

The National Safety Council says motor vehicle deaths rose 6.8 percent to 40,327 in 2016, in line with its initial estimate of 40,200.

Car Crash with police
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Accidents are claiming a record number of lives, with an American accidentally injured every second and killed every three minutes by something preventable. And, while the opioid crisis is behind an unprecedented spike in preventable deaths, there are still more fatalities related to motor vehicles than to drug use, the National Safety Council says.

Of the 161,374 Americans who died accidentally in 2016, 40,327 involved a vehicle. The number is in line with the 40,200 estimate initially made by the NSC. Unintentional overdose deaths totaled 37,814 from drugs including prescription opioid pain relievers, heroin, and illicitly-made fentanyl, according to the council.

The United States in 2016 recorded a 14 percent increase in roadway deaths since 2014, the largest two-year jump in 53 years, the NSC said in a statement.

The grim spike is in part related to an improving economy, with more vehicle miles traveled than during the recession, Ken Kolosh, the NSC's manager of statistics, said in a phone interview.

After years of declines and plateaus, preventable deaths have been on the rise since 2009, the year the U.S. economy technically came out of the recession, trailing only heart disease and cancer in terms of the number of lives lost each year.

The NSC analysis also found a 9 percent increase in deaths in what Kolosh called "vulnerable road users," including pedestrians and bicyclists, suggesting a need to better design roads to factor in all users.

Another means of cutting the number of motor vehicle deaths would be for states to reconsider increased speed limits. 

"Research has shown increased speed limits result in more deaths, and they (speed limits) are higher than they were in years past," said Kolosh. 

"Our complacency results in 442 deaths each day," said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the NSC, in the organization's news release. "Every single one of these deaths was preventable. We know what to do to save lives, but collectively we have failed to prioritize safety at work, at home and on the road."