WASHINGTON - Traffic fatalities rose 5 percent last year, according to an analysis of preliminary state data, reversing a seven-year decline in which the number of annual traffic deaths reached their lowest level in more than six decades.
An estimated 36,200 people died motor vehicle accidents in 2012, the National Safety Council said Tuesday. That's up from 34,600 deaths the previous year. It's the first increase since 2004 to 2005.
Crash injuries requiring medical care also rose 5 percent last year to 3.9 million, the council said. The estimates are based on monthly fatality data the council receives from every state and the District of Columbia.
The council and other safety advocates attributed the increase in part to more driving due to an improved economy and a mild winter last year.
While that may explain some of the increase, the rate of deaths also increased 4 percent to 1.23 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The estimated annual population death rate was 11.49 deaths per 100,000 people, also an increase of 4 percent.
One explanation is that not only are people driving more as the economy improves, but they're also driving differently, said Michael Sivak, a professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
During the economic downturn, people tended to drive slower to conserve gas; there was less driving on rural roads, which are more risky than urban roads, and there were fewer freight shipments and thus fewer heavy trucks on the road, he said.
Increases in pedestrian and bicyclist deaths - a reflection of more people walking and biking in urban areas - may also be a factor, said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.
By the numbers
Number of consecutive years, before 2012, that U.S. traffic deaths had declined
Number of U.S. traffic fatalities in 2012, a 5 percent increase from 34,600 in 2011
Estimated cost of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries and property damage in 2012
Source: National Safety Council